Thoughts behind the click
You’ve all heard the saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
According to Wikipedia (a semi-legitimate info source), the expression “Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words” originates from Syracuse Post-Standard newspaper editor Tess Flanders in 1911.
In any event, now that you have some water-cooler/coffee-shop trivia talk, in my career as a photojournalist I have taken thousands of photos. So an equivalent of millions of words, I suppose.
Some images were pretty straightforward: photos from breaking news events that are pretty self-explanatory; colourful image captures from cultural events; studio photos of woman and men looking the very best they can; sports photos that show peak action (but perhaps don’t reflect the game’s outcome); and dull shots from such banal matters as news conferences and various and sundry meetings and gatherings.
However, every now and then, I take a photo that grabs my attention for a number of reasons. It’s an image that truly speaks volumes on several levels: the technical knowledge needed to pull it off; all the planets aligning to make for a truly fascinating photo; and the many questions it leaves unanswered.
One of these photos for me was one I took a couple of weeks ago to illustrate a story I wrote for Cabin Radio. I volunteer my time for that community radio outlet covering law courts and taking photos at times of community events.
I give a lot of my time to Cabin, as I love covering courts — I first did so years ago for the Winnipeg Sun — and I also like to keep up my photo-J chops, which I first honed in the early ’80s at the Brandon Sun.
But I digress.
The story I needed a photo for was about a drunken man who was off his meds for his bipolar condition who assaulted a cab driver and two members of law enforcement. It all happened outside The Raven Pub, on 50 Street in downtown Yellowknife. It’s the city’s tenderloin district that I’m told was once labelled as a Gaza Strip by a national columnist.
It’s a troubled area full of homeless folks and various ne’er-do-wells I’ve written about often, having learned about it firsthand when working at the Northern News Services Limited building — a stone’s throw from the Raven and across the street from the failing social experiment known as the Day Shelter/Sobering Centre. Also known as the city’s drunk tank.
Back to my image quest. So when comes to illustrating a story, I learned early on to rely on my experience working and living with photography over the decades and also to lean on my creative side and be confident knowing that I have found solid solutions in the past and will get the job done this time.
Not to sound immodest, but I’m pretty good at photo illustration. I even won a national award for it early in my career. Back when I was using a manual Nikon camera with black and white film I would process myself.
Back then, to push process film to an exposure rating of 3,200 was really testing the limits of technology. And the resulting grain and contrast would prove to be problematic — especially when being reproduced in a newspaper.
However, on this recent Saturday night, I simply made sure my state-of-the-art Sony camera was charged up and that the memory card was formatted.
I had been thinking off-and-on all day of what final image I wanted to illustrate the story and from what angle I would have to be at to make the composition work. I also had to figure in the weather (it had been raining), the environment (I had to make sure I wouldn’t be set upon by lushed-up lugins) and exactly how much blue I wanted to be in the post-dusk sky.
It should be a loosely frame long-shot street scene showing cabs lining up outside the Raven, which need to be situated in its environment nicely.
So at ventured out in my truck at midnight — I love cruising the streets after dark with a camera, it brings back memories when I would do so in a newspaper car in cities like Toronto and Winnipeg with a police band scanner — and turned off Franklin Avenue onto 50 Street.
My camera had already been cranked up to an exposure index rating of 10,000, set to aperture priority at the widest opening. WIth the zoom lens I use, extended to the old-school camera equivalent of 200 millimetres, that meant f3.5. I imagined I would have a shutter speed between 1/8 and 1/30 a second. I knew I would have to brace the camera, either on a vehicle or laying the camera on the street.
I saw a group of people smoking and laughing outside The Gold Range, the city’s legendary dive bar. Usually a great crowd, with a very unlikely mix of people who party amicably together.
Down the block, I don’t see much happening out from of the Raven. But I quickly see my shot angle fixing itself in front of me. It will work great if I just pull over past the Gold Range Hotel, at the start of the Pop-Up Park (another questionable social experiment that likely looked better on paper).
I realize that I can get both a great angle and camera support by resting my camera on my rear view mirror outside my driver’s-side door. A few cabs start to pull up to the front of the Raven. I quickly use the zoom on the fixed lens to frame my shot and quickly hit the shutter trigger. I wanted to get some test shot done right away.
I see on the LCD screen on the rear of the camera that the framing is good and the shutter speed is 1/50 second. Which is perfect, as I am zoomed out to a fairly long lens, which requires a faster than normal click.
Since I can’t see through the viewfinder, I set the focus on single shot and make sure it is fixed on the front door of the Raven. Some people start pouring out the front door of the bar. More cabs decelerate by me as the queue for fares down the street at the bar.
The scene is set, I just need to capture it. So I let the camera work for me and start clicking of series of shots in short bursts. After a few minutes, I pull the camera back inside and check a few frames to make sure everything is in focus and sharp.
I fire up the truck and drive by the people I had been photographing a few moments before.
A woman looks at my truck as I drive by. I notice her as she was twirling about a bit while having a cigarette in the doorway of the Raven.
When I get home, I edit the images down to two or three, looking for a row of cabs with people in front of the bar.
When I give things a closer look, I realize I have a winner. And it’s one of those images that speaks volumes.
There’s the woman smoking and chatting with a man standing in the doorway. Is he a bouncer at the bar? What are they talking about? Is it just drunky bar-banter? I wonder what her story is. Who is she? Where is she from? Why is she at that bar? What is she looking for? She looked like she was having a good time. But doing so at a bar with a bad reputation. Interestingly, I found myself worrying for her.
Then there’s the guy sitting on the ground. Who is he? Is he drunk/stoned? Is he waiting for someone, or waiting for the Street Outreach van (FYI, call 867-445-7202 to report a problem) to make its rounds? Is he noticed by the woman? Or by the man in the doorway?
The cabbies lining up for fares are often new Canadians; immigrants from places such as Somalia and India. They work hard. Most of them are quite nice. It’s often the older, crustier white dudes who are rude. They are the ones who tells off-colour jokes and make semi-racist comments — when they have an older white guy as a fare I guess they feel comfortable with. They are wrong. Their banter makes me uncomfortable.
Some cabbies of all colours get ripped off when fares don’t pay. They get verbally and physically abused by drunk passengers. Some of the cabbies do ask for it. But most are just trying to make a buck in this rough place to scratch enough salary together to pay rent and eat. Let alone if they are trying to support a family.
Cabbies generally have a hard life. They work long hours around the clock. One of their own was killed last year. Two men — a father and son — have been charged with murder and are before the courts.
While the evidence in their cases hasn’t been tested, I was at a bail hearing for one of them where a lot of the Crown’s case was revealed. That info is protected under a publication ban. But I heard every word.
The final person to consider in the photo is the woman crossing the street in the far left. Who is she? Where is she going? How does she eke out a life in Yellowknife? Why is she walking alone at midnight in that part of town? Is she scared, or is she used to the area?
So many questions. That’s why I like this photo. I can look at it for some time and try and answer those questions to my own satisfaction. But I will never know that real answers.
I don’t know when I will take another photo that causes me to pause. It could be today, tomorrow or not for some time. I’ve included a few photos below that have also stayed top of mind with me over the years for different reasons.
I thought I would share this with you, as I hope it gives a glimpse as to what goes on in this photographer’s mind. I also think it will be interesting for other photographers to read. I bet they will understand how I’m feeling; how I approach the craft.
Sometimes it’s just a click of the shutter. Other times, it’s a poignant slice of life.
Here are a few images I pulled from my files that have stood out in mind my for various reasons. None are particularly award-worthy, just interesting in their own right.