It’s New Years Eve so perhaps you’ll bear with me. There’s a little story behind this picture…
This portrait was made during the incredible workshop that I attended back in 2011, which was conducted by Mary Ellen Mark in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Mary Ellen gave us some options of places to shoot - places she’d sent attendees in the past, knowing they came back with good pictures. For me, it was a choice between the town dump and the slaughterhouse. I chose the dump. She told us we’d need gumboots, as we’d be walking in trash, so the girl I went there with, Ari, and I got our taxi to stop at a shoe shop en route. I couldn’t buy gumboots anywhere near my size so I bought the only things I could find big enough - some cheap tennis shoes. There was a fruit shop next door to the shoe shop so we also bought water and oranges.
When we got to the dump Ari and I separated and went trudging in different directions through mountains of trash. Eventually I met this man and, as we walked, we conversed - not that I could speak Spanish, nor could he speak English - we communicated by gesture. He lived with his dogs (there’s one behind him) in a hut at the edge of the dump and worked there every day, filling large bags with stuff he might be able to sell. He graciously agreed to let me take his picture. He was (and hopefully still is) such a dignified man. I gave him my oranges and, noticing he had none, my shoes, ending my trip to the dump barefoot. Later, on hearing of this, people thought I was either crazy or incredibly kind and generous, but I just felt manifestly inadequate having made such a small gesture - it was the very least I felt I could have done. The experience of meeting this man was a very powerful one for me - he never asked me for anything - and he lived with the dignity that is so evident in this picture even though, by any standard, he had so very little.
The picture also involved technical challenges. I was using Ilford XP2 Super film, which is nominally 400ISO but can be successfully overexposed to some extent (and underexposed according to ChrisM’s fascinating experiments). It was incredibly hot and bright at the dump, and I wanted to use some fill flash so as to get some light to his face, which was well shaded by his hat. Leica M’s having just 1/50 sec as a maximum sync speed meant I had to stack the only two colour filters I had with me - a green and a yellow - on the 28mm Elmarit lens and I still had to use the minimum aperture (f16). Even then I was overexposing the box speed by two stops - effectively 100ISO. Setting my Nikon SB25 flash to half power I hoped it would all work out - and this time, fortunately, it did.
What this story illustrates perfectly to me is that photography enables us to experience so much that maybe we wouldn’t otherwise. If it weren’t for the workshop I’d probably never have gone to Mexico, and certainly never to the town dump. I’d never have met this man whose quiet dignity will forever stay with me - not just in a picture - this was a real, live experience and I can still recall us talking, and even remember the heat and the acrid stench of the dump; can almost still feel the slimy rubbish oozing through my toes after I’d passed on my shoes. I’ll never forget the lessons my short encounter with this man taught me in acceptance, dignity and humility. Hell, I’d never have met my valued mentor Mary Ellen Mark or some of the wonderful people I still maintain contact with.
It taught me why I love photography so much - working out solutions to problems, sharing unimaginable experiences with other photographers. Being IN the world and experiencing its delights, its vicissitudes and having the opportunity to come away with something tangible, personal and meaningful. A photograph.
Have a happy, healthy and fulfilling 2018.