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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…..”

Tom Lynn says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

fantastic post. you have summed up what I feel everyday.

Jason says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:39 am

Jesus – and they say you take good photographs! As I’ve said before, your writing is gripping and bubbles many emotions to the surface. Somehow you always hit a nerve with me when I read your work…well said Joe, well said.

Paul Hara says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:50 am

Joe, we met at one of your workshops and you said you weren’t a good writer. You were wrong!

randy baran says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:54 am

you told the truth! thanks for sharing it with us.

Vince Carmichel says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:01 am

The photo is good Joe, but the writing in this article is outstanding. I don’t mean to be offensive but it’s better than usual. You must have been feeling it at some level.

Ron Paulsen says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:01 am

Damn Joe. Your turning into one hell of a writer. Oh yeah the camera only opens doors we ask it to.

Dan Milham says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:03 am

When we look at your photographs we get our interpretations and feelings. When we read your words we get your intentions and feelings. It’s a win/win.

Drew Miller says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:19 am

I would to like to Ditto those comments. Joe, though the lens is not pointed at you….I can see your soul, your empathy.


Kirk Decker says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:20 am

I’ve been working on a project that originated in Flickr called 100 Strangers. The object is to approach 100 Strangers and ask to take their photograph. It’s been incredibly rewarding. The worst, and only abuse, I’ve encountered is the abuse I given myself for not asking.

JoMama says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:32 am

I don’t feel any less crazy – just less alone. :)

Duane says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:36 am

Nice! That was awesome!

Sissel says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:39 am

Never ever disappointed when I read your blog. And this entry, well, let’s just say, killing me softly. It’s dead on. You described how I feel and crazy stuff I do so accurately. Beautiful stuff.

Chris Exum says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:41 am

I know it’s not the point, but
Got … to… know…
Who was it?

Shari says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:43 am

This made me weepy. Thank you for writing it.

Martin says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:46 am

You are so good at looking through the view-finder with your heart instead of your eye.

chuck liddy says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:52 am

Joe, you are my hero. never have I been able to put that into words. thanks

Dick says:

on February 15, 2010 at 12:01 pm

You write a mean blog Joe, really you do. Now write some more and soon you’ll need another agent.

Nanine Hartzenbusch says:

on February 15, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Joe – adored this beautiful piece of writing. will share with my photojournalism students and my husband, Bert Fox – great blog too…have always loved your work, your eye, your style. many thanks

TripleScoop says:

on February 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Joe. You did it again.

You tugged at my heart strings with your pictures and words. I love seeing and reading your posts. Sometimes I wish the would never stop.

Caleb says:

on February 15, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Joe, I have never responded to any blog. I really like your books, and your writing is from the heart. Thank you for sharing these moments with us.

Brenda Tharp says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Wow, Joe – you hit the proverbial nail on the head with this post just by the responses alone. Such a powerful picture and story. Keep ‘em coming!

Curtis Brandt says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:11 pm

Pure poetry.

jim brandano says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:25 pm

Wow..Great post.. You verbalized what I think we all feel about the art of looking through the looking glass.

Tony Fanning says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Well written mate. Awesome stuff.

Marissa Rodriguez says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:53 pm

this is an amazing post.

Girish says:

on February 15, 2010 at 1:57 pm

Wonderful photograph. Love the first one a lot. Simply superb. Great write up as well. Keep me going and my spirits high.

@davidmonnerat says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:18 pm

another great post. it’s nice to know that the same thoughts that go through my head when approaching folks goes through yours, too. i’m normal! (or we both aren’t…)

Michael Aaron says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:26 pm

This is my first time coming to your blog, although I’ve long heard, and been aware of, your work. I own one of your books. I typically try not to leave comments that merely repeat what others have said, but I have to fall in line with everyone else and state that this was a phenomenal piece of writing.

I love the photo as well – reminds me of my grandfather’s gigantic hands.

Levi Sim says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I was recently in New york and took time to wa and shoot. I started at JFK, and headed for Times Square. My first subway trip, and unfortunately had an experience you think couldn’t really happen in real life–put me in a funk, and I closed up. Finally, while eating lunch and pondering how to make the best of my last few hours in new york, I set a goal to make pictures of five strangers. I walked onto the street, saw a couple with sweatered dog and I was cookin’. I talked with and shot 20 people by the time I got on the plane. Once you get going, it’s easier to keep going. Like others here, I ‘ve never been turned down, either.

Thanks for the reminder, Joe.


Susan Dennis says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:29 pm

Joe, you have a way with words-this entry nails it. Sublime.

dana says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:34 pm

thank you for this compelling post!

Megan says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:35 pm

YES–this is exactly how I feel, but find so hard to put into words!

Richard Hales says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:37 pm

As illuminating as ever. I must remember to put more profanity in my posts

Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

What a great post, Joe, and it couldn’t be more true about photographers. . . I love the photos too–I probably would have wanted to take pictures of those hands too–amazing! You have such a gift with portrait photography (well, all photography really, but you SHINE in the portrait department!) Thanks again for another inspirational bunch of words, Cindy

johnrose says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:46 pm

well said. A photogrphic philosophy that couldn’t ring more true.
“Stop taking pictures, Start making relationships.”

Verino Popovic says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Awesome! Thank you for sharing this. As someone said, You are my hero.

Daniel Solorio says:

on February 15, 2010 at 2:53 pm

What a beautiful post today damn good! I found myself in a temporary state of… non been here, I’m glad you’re a photographer cause you inspire me everyday on pursuing what i love, but you could as well, easily and as successful writer. Thanks for sharing

Cindy Williams says:

on February 15, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Thank-you seams trite, but thank-you.

Leandro Frin says:

on February 15, 2010 at 3:38 pm

Great post… tks

John A. says:

on February 15, 2010 at 4:24 pm

This gave me goose bumps. Very moving post. Its a nice reminder why so many of us choose to lug around heavy pieces of technology.

Scott Jackson says:

on February 15, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Awesome story Joe, I always enjoy reading about your experiences.

Skip Barber says:

on February 15, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Another awe inspiring blog. One of your best.

Thanks guy!

Barbara_NY says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:28 pm

I don’t know if I am more addicted to your imagery or your sophisticated writing style. Either way, I call first dibs on a signed copy of your inevitable, award winning novel.

Andrew Jones says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:32 pm

“His hands cupped a cigarette, joined loosely at his lap.” What a great line and image this creates, even before looking at the photo.

Thomas Lester says:

on February 15, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Thank you Joe. This really hit home with me as I’m in the middle of a “100 Complete Strangers” project for 2010. I’m forcing myself to get over the fear of approaching interesting strangers to take their photograph. You have inspired me (once again).


john fowler says:

on February 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

Thank you for that photo, and for writing that, Joe. An open door! I’m sure you have no idea of how much that will affect the rest of us.

Rory Laubscher says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I’ve never met you. Though through this blog, your two books and all your content on KelbyTraining I can only say you must be a humble, quirky, dedicated liver of life.
Thank you for all the posts like this one that speak about the soul of photography and that common thread that connects everyone who needs a camera like they need their lungs.

Kenny Batallones says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:45 pm

very inspiring stuff Joe. I’ll remember this story every time i make new friends through photography. thanks for this. :)

Monty says:

on February 15, 2010 at 7:46 pm

My daily espresso is your photos, and the double shot is the writing. Kicks my ass out of bed and inspires me to continue to push the limits. Thank you.

James Saxon says:

on February 15, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Ok, I give, who was it? Great post and very nice image. It is a very old Dallas Cowboy ring.

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