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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…..”

visithra says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:10 am

that pretty much sums up why we’re all crazy nuts over photography

Ryan Unger says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:16 am

HAHA…I am reading this during my work hours on the West Coast….currently 2:16 in the morn….when will I finish? Who knows…projects need done and the sun will be rising soon..its game on. Good words McNally, good words.

Sina says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:37 am

I like this Joe… nicely written… Thanks.

Christine Meintjes says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:41 am

Stunning photo! Love how it tells a whole story! Great words too!

Lucca says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:41 am

Very true Joe. I can be extremely frustrating sometimes though, for instance, say you never had your equipment in the truck.

“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.”
A very powerful line there man! Moving our feet and making sure we don’t blink…

Rasmus Jürs says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:49 am

Very cool. A good eksample of how the eye of an experienced photog works. Any other person would have never gotten this experience.

Its like “The moment it Clicks” the lost chapter

Polgara says:

on February 15, 2010 at 6:32 am

So I’m not nuts… :)

Joe says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:00 am

Well said, Sir.

Douglas Pettway says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:03 am

this is easily, the best blog post I’ve read in a long time. So, so to the point about why we must do what we love. Thanks Joe.

anette Lawrence says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:12 am

wow..that really moved me.. Beautifully written . i love the picture you got out of it.. … wow..

kinga taukert says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:15 am

great post! I mean there are lots of great posts here :) but that one is special. love what you wrote and love the pics. they are powerful.

Joe Holmes says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:23 am

Sometimes, Joe, you make me very very glad I’m a photographer. Thanks.

Bob DeChiara says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:42 am

The moment had been seized! I had a similar situation and I knew if I didn’t get the photo I would have been kicking myself in the butt all day. Turns out i got the photo, had it printed and framed, gave it to the subject about a month later. Just the look on his face looking at his portrait was priceless. He couldn’t have been more appreciative.


Bernard says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:51 am

I’ll be using this as explanation for confused looks for years to come.

Thanx Joe :)

Terry Clark says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:58 am

Yup, that’s it, the reason why, after doing nothing but this for 35 years, I still jump out of bed every morning excited to see what new wonders, new experiences and new people I’ll meet.

Julie says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:58 am

I need that. Thank you!

Duane says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

Great portrait

MarkHansberger says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:07 am

Thank you for reminding us all why we press the shutter button to begin with.

JoeH says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:13 am

Wow………I just can’t convey how much the picture and the story moves me…..

drixel says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:14 am

Joe McNally’s prose is as biting as his imagery. Such a soul so blessed with such an eye and heart comes, perhaps, once or twice in my lifetime. Reading Joe and embracing his body of work may help me become the other one. I sincerely hope so. I sincerely hope Joe keeps on walking that “open door” and once in, gets to sit down . . . . and write.

Lewis Coward says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:25 am

You just said what we all knew … but did not know how to say it. Great stuff Joe.

Jeanette says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:29 am

Very very well put! Love the last paragraph, it sums it up perfectly!

Simon Fleming says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:29 am

Yep.. I know that feeling, that nervous twitch of anticipation as you see something in your peripheral that you know you need to deal with photographically. It can be both a sickness and a gift – I love it.

Fred K says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:31 am

Nice story.

Shaun Langdon says:

on February 15, 2010 at 8:33 am

That some pretty serious stuff from a self-proclaimed numnuts!! In all seriousness, Joe that was an Incedible post.. Thanks for adding you view and wisdom to the lives of those who are learning from you.

Paul Lawrence says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:03 am

Awesome story Joe. I see you were putting that VR to good use as well. 1/25 at 200mm!

Gene Hilton says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:03 am

Excellent article/read…my eyes have no rest it seems; I’m always seeing things through the lens of a camera, even it one is nowhere around!

Gene Hilton says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:04 am

(if) :o )

Lenny Lind says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:08 am

Joe – thanks. I’m sending this to my girlfriend. Your words do more justice than mine about this photography thing.

Linda Jeffers says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:13 am

Identification is everything. You’re reading my mail on so much of what you wrote. Thanks for taking the time. I love it when you share your thinking.

Jim McFadden says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:14 am

Eloquently stated, as always.

Tom Sperduto says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:15 am


ed linn says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:17 am

inspiring portrait and great story to go along with.
thanks for sharing your images, experiences and wisdom with us.

Atiyeh R. says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:19 am

although I can not call myself a professional like you, I do have those feelings and I got chills knowing Joe McNally goes through it too! loved the write Joe, and loved the pictures.. I stared at them, and imagined myself right beside you and it gave me bubbles in my stomach and how so i wish i was there..

I cant wait for you to come to Dubai for GPP..
Thanks Joe :)

david says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:22 am

Joe, your words paint a picture almost as great as your photographs.

Dave says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:23 am

An inspiring blog post, and WOW “Hayes” the only man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring that a huge tittle.

Chris says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:26 am

Just another example as to why you are still my favorite blog.
Thanks for these posts. Made my day.

I look for that little (1) in my RSS feed many times a day =)

Leif Eliasson says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:27 am

Reading this with joy – as always your writing is interesting and easy to read.
This story feels so real and true.
Thanks for sharing it.
Regards – Leif

Dawn Norris says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:30 am

Loved this start to the week. Made my Monday. Says a lot. A real lot:)

Thanks for the refreshing truth – again!

Louis says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:33 am

Great story. Amazing the kinda doors that can open to us when we follow our hearts, overcome the fear of rejection, and simply ask “May I?”

Al says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:35 am

Joe, you are one of the few people that can make us laugh and make us cry. You are far more than a photographer…..

Jane says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:44 am

Beautifully written and very powerful . . . and of course the photos are amazing. Thank you for sharing this.

William Chinn says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:46 am

This post is the reason why I follow your blog. The story surrounding the photograph is often better than the photo itself. Thanks again for the complete “photograph”.

Sherman says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:50 am

Dropped into my day job here in the city and do as I do almost every morning, pull up your blog…just to catch up on what you’re doin now!! Today, I nodded and smiled and felt that twinge of knowingness that feed my soul.

Thanks Joe!

Jeff Ott says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:54 am

Thanks. Nice to read when dealing with the lower days…

Mark says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:03 am

A flying carpet into people’s lives…

Well said. Even me, as a rank amature, often steps back to reflect that if not for the camera hanging off my shoulder, I’d be missing out on some great experiences and people. The woman having a lunchtime smoke in New Brunswick, New Jersey, the sushi maker in Tokyo, Japan. I’ll remember them because I was able to make a portrait of them. Thanks to my camera.

DaleG says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:07 am


Thank you very much. Your ability to express your passion in words helps me understand the stirrings that I’m just starting to understand when a beam of light paints a point on the hillside or mist blankets a meadow. Thank you for the encouragement to stop, look, click and explore further.

Michael Wiesman says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:17 am

I find myself doing this same thing, I’ve started to bring my camera everywhere I go, no matter what. My wife used to worry about people looking at me with this black Nikon contraption that would often make people look at me weird and shout, “Hey, with a camera like that you must know what you are doing!” Others would run the moment that I put it up to my eye. I have to make pictures of daily lives.

Linda Brinckerhoff says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:19 am

your stories are so heart-felt they often make me cry

thanks for the inspiration and a tear in my eye

Jomi Garrucho says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:27 am

All the while i thought i was cookoo, thanks for sharing this story

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