To photograph the human spirit in all its capacity and boldness can be a task that takes a lifetime. Capturing the sweat of a boxer on the final round or a climber piercing the ice with his country’s flag brings photographers from around the world together, urging and inspiring one another to continue showing up for those moments of beauty and struggle.
From one person to the next, inspiration is burned differently upon the human heart and it is not always found in glitter and gold. Sometimes inspiration is found in tatters in the back alleys. Denver Car Shipper . When economic hardship hit the men and women of New York during the 1930s, photographer Jacob Riis walked the back streets with his camera to document those who had hit rock bottom, who had in many ways been forgotten. Riis’ How the Other Half Lives is a documentation of the dark parts of our own world. The collections depict people living on the streets with nothing, families crammed ten to a bedroom, the depravity of drug and alcohol abuse.
What does it mean to capture the emotional response of people who have been living in the gutter? How does a photographer approach life with a camera when that life has been so unapproachable for so long? The answer is by being one of them, or more accurately: by simply respecting them. As photographers in search of images that will grip the world and ourselves, we must also try to keep the act of creating photographs in this sometimes tumultuous, sometimes fragile environment casual for the people.
I remember as a young man I was walking the streets of San Francisco one afternoon and I came across a man who was living out of a box and reading a newspaper in the afternoon sun. I paused and proceeded to lift my camera from across the street. While I focused this scene into my view, I felt it just wasn’t working for me the way I really thought it needed to be. I needed to get closer.
So I put my camera in my backpack and walked over to this man and sat right down next to him. This man had been through many difficult periods and trials, situations and travels, but above all his homelessness was tearing him apart. That introduction developed into a three-hour conversation, bringing the man to tears as he opened his life to me. Before I left, I ended up asking this man if I could photograph him and he agreed with an open, proud spirit.
Throughout the years I have photographed many people and I have learned that by trying to capture the full range of the human spirit I must look upon those who the world may deem the forgotten, those who are not the successful, but the poppers and ragamuffins.The artistic vision in photographing the forgotten or those whom we as a society seem to pass is this: its human life! What is more fascinating than the human and the choices in life? Neither film nor marble can capture all the intricacies of a man and his struggles, of a woman and the miles she has had to walk.
Pursuing the craft of photography is anything but easy, but mostly exhausting. The trials and temptations to continue in pursuit of the photograph is a piece of art in its own right. Why do we do it? What is the point? And will it make a difference? Maybe not, or maybe so, but we do it because it has been laid upon our hearts to display the pumping heart of this world, the long hours of a working man, the exhaustion of a single mother, the butt end of a cigarette on a jazz mans guitar, the sweat of a marathon runners final mile and of course the last look of a dying man. We photograph to inspire, we photograph to keep ourselves questioning, and we photograph those whom the world deems less important because in reality they are the most important.
By being with people, sitting in those dark alleyways, trudging through garbage cities, drinking their coffee, sleeping where they sleep, photographers will gain trust. Photographers can earn trust to take interesting photographs, but they will also earn the trust of a fellow human so that they might be able to tell someone’s story to the world so that it will not be forgotten.