It’s weird sometimes to think about how many truly wonderful/bizarre/talented people I’ve had the opportunity to know over the years. It’s also weird to think about how many racist/misogynist/misanthropic people I’ve known as well. It came up in conversation today, and I think I’ve finally figured out what’s different about me now— why I am not surrounded by the same sort of eclectic mix these days. Now I open my mouth.

When you hold a camera, it is a license not to speak. I used to marvel at the way that worked. When I was shooting and intensely involved with unfolding scenes, I seldom spoke. It reached a point, after hours of shooting that I would sometimes forget how. Visual thinking uses different parts of the brain. To be asked to speak, even to respond to a simple question was like disrupting the trance. It would take a while to get back to the level of efficiency that I’d discovered before, even after a simple task like ordering another beer. I was never a social shooter. Occasionally, I would go out with friends who were photographers— but the presence of someone that I would sometimes talk to would always make those trips less productive. It was best to be silent. I had a little ritual about that, before I would go to make photographs. I would sit silently, just listening to music until my speech centers were free of all those things I might think of to say. Making pictures and conversation, for me, never mixed.

I had a different kind of understanding with my subjects. They could tell by the look in my eyes what I was thinking without me talking, and my perception of them was much the same. It was almost entirely non-verbal communication. To speak would break the trance. It was a trust built almost entirely on the strength of my reputation or the work itself, or from my association with other people that the subject trusted. I would only call a few of the people I photographed close friends. Mostly, it was just a sense of acceptance and respect— when no words are spoken, it’s easy to assume that the person you are with agrees with you on some fundamental level, something beyond what words can convey.

But I didn’t always agree with them. Sitting in biker clubhouses filled with racist paraphernalia, or watching people show me their guns with pride— inside I was just getting sick. But I didn’t speak. I just took pictures, remained silent, and maintained the respect projected through my eyes. Sometimes I noticed things that no one but myself and the musician on the stage noticed— missed notes, things that fell into place that shouldn’t have worked but did. But that silent gaze made me feel so good, so connected with the other person. I remember a blues guitarist whose guitar was so far out of tune that he literally bent each note into tune after it was struck for an entire set. I’ve never seen a guy work so hard before. No one noticed. It was just another night, another night of trying to connect with an audience. We just looked at each other and smiled. At the afterhours party though, we talked about how oblivious the audience really is. He said he felt like I always noticed everything, so tried hard not to let me down. But I knew better. It was pride. He was one of those people who never gave less than a hundred percent. But then, I suppose, so was I.

I guess I screwed myself when I started to write / talk about things. That sense of connection got lost somehow. I try my best to make words fit the physicality of being in those spaces, of feeling those connections. They always come up lacking. But words can have such a complexity, something far beyond the level of image. They are machines for thinking, just like good pictures. In both media, I look for the things that bug me, the things I always have to return to. If it isn’t difficult, it doesn’t seem worth the effort. But I had forgotten until today just how difficult some of those silences were, as I experienced them. I forgot how much I used to just trust, blindly, that everything would be all right. These days, I’m not so sure. At least though, if I keep talking I don’t have to worry about it. Eventually everyone just goes away.

I’m really not sure what is worse— disappearing to become a better photographer, or opening up your mouth to finally reveal the fool inside.

1 thought on “Silence”

  1. wow. its true. i’d never thought of that – but its true, this whole silence and picture making.
    i go for months without ever taking a picture, and really only ever put together a whole project only once every two years or so. and i always have to go off somewhere, hermit like, without many people and do the thing. and of course i hardly never speak then. i hadn’t realized that until i read this post. but its true. i have to go into some dream like state. its just the images up there, the images around me. and speaking becomes very difficult, i remember, at such times, always feeling like, “how could i possibly describe X-X-X-X.” only simple one liners come out. yes/no responses. its weird. people think i’m miserable, or anti-social, or that i don’t like them. but really, i just don’t have anything i can say.

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