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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…..”

Torin Halsey says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:27 pm

Joe, I’m not sure which was more beautiful, the portrait or your writing. I would like for those first two paragraphs and the last two to be read at my funeral someday, (as a quote from my favorite photographer.) Might change F**king to freaking, not sure…
This post really touched me. Thank you.

Lou says:

on February 15, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Thanks for this story, Joe; awesome piece of writing!

Russell How says:

on February 15, 2010 at 11:15 pm

Best story I’ve read in ages – thanks for sharing Joe!

Constance says:

on February 16, 2010 at 12:05 am

Very nice. Thanks.

Michael Hansen says:

on February 16, 2010 at 1:28 am

Sometimes, some of us needs to be shown in what direction the door is… You do just that, Joe. Thank you…

Art says:

on February 16, 2010 at 2:37 am

As someone who has written in excess of 600 editorials and hundreds more articles, every now and then I turn out something that feels satisfyingly close to perfect. I’ve never come even close to that with a camera. Not that I haven’t kept trying and not that I haven’t learned a lot from you already Joe. But what you just taught me goes far beyond the frame or the page. Next time I won’t walk past what I’ve just seen and get in the car and drive away. I’ll grab my camera and see if I can do what you just did – come ever so close to perfection. Thank you.

Sandra says:

on February 16, 2010 at 3:49 am

just loving it……very inspiring to me. Thank you very much.

frank says:

on February 16, 2010 at 7:02 am

Joe, great story and so true!

Last night I was checking into a hotel room and started looking around at the potential of beautiful shots in the lobby. I commented to the others that were with me, “this lobby would make a great photo”. :-D

Rogier says:

on February 16, 2010 at 7:04 am

Wow – that was a moving piece of writing. Thanks for inspiring me today to become a better photographer yet!

rebekah workman says:

on February 16, 2010 at 9:17 am


Michael says:

on February 16, 2010 at 9:23 am

Fantastic! Sent chills up my spine as I sat here and sipped my latte. The anxieties, how true, how true.

Jorge says:

on February 16, 2010 at 9:48 am

Excellent article

RIchard Allnutt says:

on February 16, 2010 at 10:30 am

Many thanks Joe… I think I needed to hear this story this morning. It reassured me that I am on the right path, and that I’m doing it for the right reasons… It also reminded me to seize those moments, as you did with these two men. I’ve often kicked myself for not having the gumption to do what you just did. Now I will. I carry those missed images around with me like old luggage!

All the best,

Karen Tate says:

on February 16, 2010 at 10:53 am

Thanks for posting this, Joe. Very inspiring, insightful, and something for all of us to think about and remember. Oh yeah, great images! Grin. That Moment def. Clicked for you. :)

Dave says:

on February 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

My wife says this, why do you give away so much. Shoot for free. Up before dawn always. Camera within grasp (always)
I get the look every time we watch sports, I mumble Canon Nikon LOL
You know how to put this in words, well written indeed.
I love to shoot hard luck for people, sick moms, sick kids and so on. They get a feeling of care from others outside their world.
Good on you, I know it must be hard in your schedule to find time for this also.

Mihalis Tsoukalos says:

on February 16, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Thank you Joe!

Jim M says:

on February 16, 2010 at 1:15 pm

This rewarded me for checking your blog daily for a new one.

shawn chamberlin says:

on February 16, 2010 at 1:50 pm

great photo joe. like you said, “its all about the hands”. its not often you can look at someones hands and get a story from that alone. in this photo, you take one look and its like diving into his auto-biography. having the two photos side by side would be a great dipytch (spelling?) i was also curious was you used to light this, it almost looks like a gold reflector, but i can’t tell for certain. thanks joe.

Mike says:

on February 16, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Joe, great story and a great memory. I have a question though. Is the man in the phone Bob Hayes, or did he play with Bob Hayes? The story indicates the latter, but then I’m wondering where the medal came from. Did he go to Bob Hayes’ home and get it for the shoot?

Mike says:

on February 16, 2010 at 2:24 pm

“phone” should read “photo”. Sorry about that.

Carol Watkins says:

on February 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm

Love your photography and love your writing. You make pictures with words as wonderfully as you do with a camera.

Norbert D. says:

on February 16, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Your writing is great, educational and entertaining as well, but this one here…. topped them all! This picture tells a story and it IS worth a thousand words. But your words in this post are so profound and sincere… they make a great impression. And inspiration.
Hang in there! I’ve been coming back for a long time. And I will..!

Mikkel says:

on February 16, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Wow – so moving. Thank you for posting that. I could identify with a lot of what you said and look forward to being able to one day identify with the rest of it.

Robert Barnes says:

on February 16, 2010 at 7:18 pm

Great story Joe! It is very inspirational. So many times I just kept on walking!!

Ken Toney says:

on February 16, 2010 at 7:35 pm

Right on the money Joe. I went to a Japanese steak house with the grandkids tonight and got the bug to take my D3s. I’m glad I did. When you get the itch you had better scratch!

Albert says:

on February 16, 2010 at 8:00 pm

What you said is the true essence of photography, telling a story through through the lens of your camera.

Jack Flemmings says:

on February 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Love the lighting of that photograph…….strong composition…..Thanks for the gift Joe……this is priceless….you leave no room for any of us to give in to fear.

Your art becomes more indispensable in touching us……this post is as important as the letter to the young photographer you shared a while back…..God bless…-jack

Richard Clompus says:

on February 16, 2010 at 9:19 pm

Joe, this explains that the feelings and observations I make with and without a camera are not unique. I feel relieved that I’m not alone out there. Thanks for sharing.


Kevin Williams says:

on February 16, 2010 at 9:28 pm

Awesome story Joe!

Phelan Ebenhack says:

on February 17, 2010 at 12:06 am

Well said! Bravo! Phelan

Sergei says:

on February 17, 2010 at 12:22 am

Love the story, Joe. Good one.

Daf says:

on February 17, 2010 at 9:34 am

Lovely story.
I can ask randoms for a photo in nighclubs and gigs (I’m mainly a nightclub photographer) but yet to have the gumption to ask random strangers in the street for a photo. Would be great.

David Kendrick says:

on February 17, 2010 at 9:53 am

Joe, your picture of those hands grabbed my attention immediately. Great Photo!

Those hands that caught your attention tell quite a story to me, (size, strength, wear and tear, age, remnants of battles fought long ago, fingernails,power, Cowboys ring, cigarette, color, composure, calmness, patience, and a lot more that I just can’t put into words…)

As usual, your writing is poignant, insightful, entertaining, and makes me glad to know I’m not the only one out there trying to capture images of the uncommon beauty of much of the world around us… Thanks a lot!

Daniel Stark says:

on February 17, 2010 at 10:39 am

Joe, WOW! Just so well said! Thanks so much for putting this down into words.

All the best,

Daniel Stark

John Dutt says:

on February 17, 2010 at 11:06 am

I really like the photo of Bob Hayes, thanks for posting it. The hands really make the portrait and tell a story. I see triumph and success as well as foreboding. I watched him a lot when I was a growing up, he had a good hands for someone who did not play college ball.

So, who is the guy who you shot outside of Starbucks? Are you not publishing it out of respect?

Gordon says:

on February 17, 2010 at 1:33 pm

Joe, thanks for sharing this wonderful moment and providing some inspiration. Love the image, and you are right that a camera is a “flying carpet into people’s lives.” We just gotta’ keep climbing aboard without fear.


Barbara Lewis-White says:

on February 17, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Joe -

I thought I was crazy along with others when they find me in fields lying upside down talking to bugs, spiders, etc. with my camera in hand. I’ve been hooked since 1978…I WILL NOT GIVE IT UP and I do not care what others think….I love it!!!!

William says:

on February 17, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Nice article and very moving portrait. Just reinforces my thought; “The worst photo ever is the one that wasn’t taken.” Sometimes you just gotta go back. Thanks for sharing.

Marcel says:

on February 18, 2010 at 5:36 am

And we have a perfect definition of “A Photographer”,,,, together with beautiful story! Great Joe.

Mark R. says:

on February 18, 2010 at 7:28 am

Like after a meal in Comme Chez Soi.. A red bull for the photographic soul..

Thank you !

Greg Corcoran says:

on February 18, 2010 at 11:06 am

Thanks, Joe!

Jacqueline McAbery says:

on February 18, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I have been a photographer for many years and I have never read a truer account of the process and angst we go through!
Like others, it gave me goose bumps and inspires me to stop in the future and take that photo I maybe procrastinating about once I have passed the scene. You write as well as you shoot! Many thanks.

Garth says:

on February 18, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Okay! Everyone back away from Joe. He is in a grove and he is shootin’ in rhythm. Joe, you are on fire.

David Watts, Jr. says:

on February 18, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Ain’t it the truth!

I had a similar experience in Portland, Oregon last July when I was attending a conference. Let me preface this by saying that I am a lifelong Bostonian (and all that that means). A colleague and I were in the hotel lobby before going to dinner one evening. An elderly gentleman and another man walked in and sat down on one of the benches. I asked my colleague to watch my camera bag while I grabbed my D700 with 28-70/2.8 and SB-900. I introduced myself to the older gentleman and asked if I could make a photograph of him. He asked me who I thought he was.

“You’re Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox,” I replied.

“No I’m not I’m ..” and he proceeded to rattle off a bs name. After a beat he smiled and said that I could take as many photographs as I wanted. I took three (the second frame turned out to be the one), took a couple of he and his son, and thanked them both.

3,000 miles to get an opportunity to photograph one of the greats of the Boston Red Sox (they were in Portland for the Minor League All Star Game), and he only lives fifteen miles from my house!

Michael Morten says:

on February 21, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Thanks so much Joe, amazing words and just the kick in the ass I needed when I started feeling like setting my camera down and taking a break.

Hendrik says:

on February 21, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Wonderful post Joe. May your camera forever be your magic carpet.

Arthur Hawkins says:

on February 22, 2010 at 4:39 pm

Doggonit Joe, that just brought a tear to my eye.!

Styrmir Kári says:

on February 22, 2010 at 5:14 pm

Good words Joe… inspiring even.

Patrik says:

on February 23, 2010 at 2:36 pm

You´re a great man Joe McNally, a great man. A true inspiration.

karl bratby says:

on February 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm

wow, a great photographer and a great writer….super cool

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