We were visiting the relatively small Yunnan Province town of Xizhou, when we decided to visit the morning market on a rainy Monday morning. We walked through mostly shuttered streets on our way. We happened across one man standing in street-level room, the large windows open to the street – he in slacks and t-shirt as he ironed a shirt, presumably for the day. I stopped and motioned with my camera – could I take his picture, I asked? A quick, irritated wave-off was my answer. I don’t speak Chinese, but I knew enough to know what he said under his breath as I walked away.
If you have read this blog for long enough, you already know that I don’t take pictures of people who don’t want to be photographed. In markets and other crowded public places, I rarely ask permission – but if someone waves me off, or otherwise makes it clear they don’t want my camera pointed at them, I dutifully comply. In other situations, where it’s more or less one on one with my camera in a quiet setting, I first ask permission.
This policy of mine goes back to my mother, Ilse Kalisher. “Photographer don’t take pictures,” she once told me when I was young,”they steal them.” Her point was simple – respect your subject and don’t photograph them if he or she objects.
Back in Xizhou, I shrugged off the man in the t-shirt who didn’t want to be photographed and headed the to the market where one vendor after another turned her back to me when I raised my camera. I relegated myself to photographing close-ups of food and long shots of the market.
At one point, I found two elderly people sitting with two children I took to be their grandkids. I asked permission (I lifted my camera and smiled), the grandparents nodded their consent and I began to fire away, occasionally stopping to share the images off the back of my camera with kids and grandparents alike. We were at the northern edge of the market, squatting in a dilapidated room with a makeshift stove and few provisions. And we were all having a blast.
When I had enough shots, I stood up, said “Xie, Xie” (thank you) and turned to leave. That’s when a woman who I hadn’t previously seen and whom I presumed was the children’s mother, stomped in and whacked me on the shoulder while firing off a few choice words in Chinese. “But I had permission,” I protested in English. No use, of course, she was mad and, truthfully, the moment was over as quickly as it had begun.
On the walk back to our hotel, the rain coming down a bit harder, some of the previously shuttered windows were now open. There was the metalsmith, the shoe salesman, the odds and ends store and more. And then there was the barber. Ah, the barber.
I stepped up and peered in the window and it was perfect. A man was lying done prone in the chair while the barber gave him a close shave with a straight razor. This is a lost art here in the United States. And there was more. The barbershop was full of people, as barbershops worldwide are supposed to be. The barbershop as social hub- America, China, it makes no difference.
I walked up to the open window with my camera hanging down from my neck – we all traded hellos (Ni Hau) and smiles. After a brief moment, I raised my camera and, by raising my eyebrows, asked if I could take pictures. The gestures I got in return were overwhelmingly welcoming. Now the real work began – finding the right angle, making sure the people were ignoring me, finding and framing the shot that would tell the story.
I enjoy much about this picture – the razor on the man’s face to be sure. But look to the left, there’s a man leaning in with a great smile on his face. He’s sitting, by chance, in a chair that placed him underneath a hair dryer. And then look just to the right of the barber’s elbow, there’s a poster of a smiling model staring right at us. And then there’s the army shirt of the barber himself. You probably can’t see it on this web jpeg, but the label where a soldier’s name would typically go it says – and in English no less – FASHION ARMY.
Sometimes a strong image is comprised of a single subject. Think of a close up of a flower – or even a dramatic landscape. Sometimes a strong image captures one person, in a moment, that tells a compelling story. And sometimes a strong image is a tableau with multiple moments and stories. This is the latter – and were I younger and earlier in my career, I might have allowed myself to be deterred by all the folks who didn’t want their pictures taken and, as a result, this image might not have existed.
In the end, I’m glad I didn’t give up and pack my camera away when so many other folks were frustrated by my camera. I’m glad I didn’t take any of the rejections personally – I’m equally proud that I’ve been true to my mother’s admonition – and, in this case, I’m very glad was able to capture this image not in spite of, but because of all of the above.