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We Just Can’t Help It…..

Feb 15

In Rambling, Stories at 5:00am


Photographers. We’re strange, right? We can’t stop. We run when others walk. We work when others relax. We have no sense of weekends, holidays, time off, time on, or time in general, except as it relates to sunrise or set. When there’s a football game on TV, we aren’t looking always at the action on the field. We’re looking at the sidelines to see if any our buds are covering the game and how much of the long glass out there is black or white. We walk around like addled sumbitches, staring at strange stuff, hovering at the edge of human activity, aching to be accepted, dying for a moment, breathless in anticipation for that which mostly never happens. Curious behavior, at best. That’s putting it nicely. Most folks would just chalk it up to damn strange and tell their youngsters to stay away from us.

Maybe the word is hinky. We shake our heads, punch buttons on expensive cameras, eyeball perfect strangers, ask odd questions, and wait for light. What an odd thing to wait for. We also have restive, restless, roaming eyes. Eyes that don’t shut down. Eyes that often feel hemmed in or framed by a 35mm lens border, eyes that correspond to a 24-70, or a 200-400, depending on what they encounter. Eyes that curse the dumb conglomeration of plastic, brass and glass we place in front of them, asking that mix of pixels and wiring to be surrogate vision, supple as the real thing. Hah! We might as well ask a fucking toaster oven.

I walked out of a Starbucks the other day, in not a particularly good mood, but anticipating that the mix of 3 espressos with milk would marginally improve it. There were two men conversing at an outside table. One of them, just sitting there, was majestic, regal, even. His hands cupped a cigarette, joined loosely at his lap. I passed them. It took all of a half second.

But, when I got to the truck, I started feverishly ripping open my camera bags. Like a man in burning building fumbling for an oxygen mask, I tore open zippers, velcro, caps and covers, desperate to find a lens that might give me half a prayer of representing what I just saw. The hands. Those hands did something important. I knew it in a heartbeat. It was a pair of hands that I needed to photograph, and if I shut off the adrenaline pump, got lazy and slid into the comfort of the rental car and closed my eyes and surrendered to the latte, I would curse myself over and over again for being a feckless, useless photographer. (If you had encountered any of my early career wire service editors, you would be inclined to think it redundant to describe a photographer as useless. It was a descriptor often thrown my way, in between exasperated sighs and abundant profanity.)

So I grabbed a camera with a 70-200, and resolutely walked back to the men. They knew before I got within 10 feet of them I was going to ask. There was no tension, no fear, no clammy feeling in the gut that precedes so many photographic encounters. (Will they say no? Will they ridicule me? Beat me up? Demand money, my social security number and a financial statement?)

No. They accepted me before I opened my mouth. Those powerful hands caught footballs for a living.  Still fit, the gentleman towered over me when he stood. He had a stint with the Cowboys, hence the pinkie ring. He knew Bob Hayes, the man who changed football forever. I photographed Hayes for Sports Illustrated, when they were doing a wrap up of legendary sprinters. He is the only man in history to win an Olympic gold medal, and a Super Bowl ring.


This remains one of my favorite portraits. Hayes had a tough go after football, and had legal and health problems. He died not too long after I shot this down at his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla. At the Starbucks that day, the gentleman and I chatted  about Bullet Bob. We laughed a bit. The connection was immediate, and sincere. We shook hands. My hand literally disappeared into his.

How wonderful is that? What a gift this camera I curse is! A flying carpet into people’s lives. A certitude that this time, I will be richer for putting my camera to my eye. There’s no money on the line here. Just human encounter. Here, now, the camera becomes an instant learning machine.

The camera’s not a camera, really. It’s an open door we need to walk through.  It’s up to us to keep moving our feet. More tk…

177 Responses to “We Just Can’t Help It…..”

Tim in Vancouver says:

on February 26, 2010 at 12:44 am

Joe, that was freaking amazing writing! You just captured the way I feel almost every day when my roving and searching eyes find the unusual or the beautiful, and I have that instantaneous knowledge that I need to capture that moment – right now. Too many times I have kept walking and have come up with excuses as to why not, “Not here, not now, not in front of these people”. But there are so many other times when I accept my strange nerdyness and just go for it. I don’t care what they will think of me. The reward is the people I meet, the stories they tell, and the frames in the can. You captured that struggle perfectly, and you gave me more motivation to go for it.


Leo Addison says:

on February 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm

Wonderful story Joe! It really made me feel like I was there. Keep up the good work.

jakob says:

on February 28, 2010 at 4:24 pm

Just awesome! Love that read! Very inspiring!

David Kelly says:

on March 3, 2010 at 7:20 am

Hi Joe. Just stopped by your blog for the first time and have got to say what a cracking first post I happened to read. Having not read any of your postings prior, it was really refreshing to read a blog which give great insight into its author, much more than the average blog posting. That was a really warm story that makes you think about how complete strangers can have a common experience. Makes you think how small this big world can be at times.
It’s also nice to know that even the pro’s such as yourself, who are regularly engage with people as part of their photographic job, can still get those uncomfortable feelings that an amateur such as I gets in those “should I / shouldn’t I shoot them” camera moments in the street. Like Tim above, I’ve sometimes shied away from those street shots that I can see in my mind’s eye, but this story will certainly make me push myself more when next faced with such a situation.

wira says:

on March 3, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Hi joe, thats really beautiful writing. I like it a lot. You just motivated me to become a better photographer.

Keep the nice post!

mick connolly says:

on March 7, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Wonderful blogging Joe. It matches your photography perfectly. You are without a doubt the thinking man,s photographer.

Dennis Villafuerte says:

on March 11, 2010 at 12:53 pm

Hello Joe, That’s awesome piece of writing, sir.
Very inspiring.
See you at the next GPP!

Micha Sanders says:

on March 14, 2010 at 9:11 am

This is my first visit to your blog. I am so moved after reading this post. Now I understand why you are such a success in this competitive industry. Thank you for reminding me why I’m drawn to photography. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. Thank you for writing from the heart. Thank you for being an inspiration to so many…

Wedding Photographer French Riviera says:

on March 16, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Marvelous tale. You write as well as you shoot.

Thanks for sharing


Jason says:

on March 21, 2010 at 10:06 pm

Beautiful writing. Great photos. It makes me feel good.

Taps says:

on March 28, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Outstanding work Joe! You’re the first person to help explain the gift/curse of this addiction! Your opening line:

“Photographers. We’re strange, right? We can’t stop. We run when others walk. We work when others relax. We have no sense of weekends, holidays, time off, time on, or time in general, except as it relates to sunrise or set….”

Has become my newest mantra!

You’ve given the artistry a physical form that has escaped me for decades!

Thank You!

tburdphotos says:

on March 30, 2010 at 7:53 am

The photos themselves are so fantastic and evocative, but the story that goes with them, makes them even more wonderful.

Darren Williams says:

on October 7, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Your pictures are great … as always!

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