Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Lasting Legacy?

I went to the Rip Curl 2011 pro surfing event at Ocean Beach this weekend and got some great action shots here of mostly young, athletic surfers at the top of their game.  My favorite shots from the day however, are of Martin the old, ragged homeless man I saw on the way out of the event.

I didn't notice him when I walked down to the beach to see the event, but he was the first thing I saw when I turned to leave.  The concrete with the old homeless man up against it was a great composition and I knew I would have to stop and ask to take his portrait.  I had my zoom lens on, I could have easily shot from a distance and moved on, but that seems like stealing, like cheating the person of their dignity somehow.

I walked up and asked him to take his photo and he gladly obliged and asked me if I wanted any "cider".  I was close enough that I could see in his grocery sack that he didn't have any cider.  He only had an opened bottle of vermouth sitting next to him in the sand.   That's a hard way to get drunk, I thought to myself.  Vermouth is very sweet and is typically used as a mixer.  We engaged in a conversation and I could tell he probably had some type of mental illness usually associated with homeless people.  He spoke very clearly, but his thoughts rambled incoherently in a stream of consciousness.  He was from Seattle and Berkeley, lived on the 13th floor of a building (freaked him out), lived in a house,had to get out of there recently because "they were eating things, it was ugly", and on and on.  He asked me if I had any marijuana (nope), then asked if I believed in Jesus.

I got around to shooting the photos and he politely engaged me in the process.  He playfully put his hands in a prayer form and bowed up and down, then he took his hat off and let me get close.  The whole process took maybe 5 minutes and then I was on my way.  Before I left, he asked if he could look at the camera's LCD screen to see the photos.  I showed him, he smiled, and I walked away.

As I was driving home I reflected on why it is that I enjoy taking photos of homeless people.  The easy answer is that homeless people have interesting faces.  That's a no brainer, but it's something else, something deeper.  Then it hit me and I had the epiphany I was searching for:  He wanted to look at the screen before I left.  The screen was tangible evidence of his existence, a homeless wanderer who is probably largely ignored in life, had proof that he was among us.  I remembered that he asked me what I was going to do with the images.  I told him I didn't know.

Then I had a second, more personal epiphany:  I take photos because that will be my legacy after I'm gone.  Just like the old homeless man who wants a voice, who wants to be remembered and leave some tangible evidence of a legacy, I also want to leave some tangible, meaningful proof that I was here.  Like the old man I'm fighting time and millions upon millions of voices struggling, clawing, scratching, to be heard.

Taking photos of homeless people satisfies two people's needs at once and lets the world know that we are, and were, here.  Now I know what I'll do with the photos, I'll post them here and hope that it gives Martin a legacy in some small, meaningful way.

Everybody, this is Martin.

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