Photograph by Joe Wilson
The stories we tell ourselves about the world and ourselves paint the picture we walk in every day.
If the story inside your head is a dark tale, the world’s going to change scenery to match that tale. When the story you tell yourself has a little more hope in it, even when it’s dark outside, there will be a little more light.
If you’re in an alley and there’s two men who have you pinned against a wall, one holding a broken bottle in front of your face, a story might be your only defense, so make it a good one.
"Are you making money off us?," I was asked by one gentleman, the one with the broken bottle in his right hand and my camera in his left. The camera was being pulled and the strap, still around my neck, was bringing my face closer to the bottle.
The second gentleman, the bigger of the duo, hovered over his pal’s shoulder. His head darted to the left and right, searching the empty alley that seemed to be getting longer.
"Are you making money off us taking pictures?," he asked again, pulling the camera and my head towards him and the shattered bottle in his right hand.
The camera was a Leica, it was a really nice camera but looking at mine you wouldn’t know it. I covered it in electrical tape and masking tape, on purpose. If you’re going to walk around alleys and hang out with homeless people taking their pictures, a shiny camera is going to be a problem.
In the 1980’s, I spent four months taking pictures of homeless people in Boston, all men. It was much different than shooting political demonstrations or punk concerts, where I’d blow through rolls of film. I would be out for hours hanging out with homeless people, but only take three pictures.
The rest of the time was spent in conversation, telling stories. Mostly them telling me stories but I would tell a few, like the one about the camera around my neck. It was from my grandfather who died and it had a lot of light leaks, but I taped them up and the camera works.
That was a lie, all of it. It was a good story designed to lower the value of the camera, but “you can always get something for it,” I was told.
Shooting pictures of someone changes your relationship to them. When you live on the street and someone captures a moment of your life that you’d like to forget, it further complicates the photographer/subject relationship.
Photograph by Joe Wilson
Stories became the keys. I was an art student, broke and lived in a dorm with roommates and there were security guards at the front door, that was my story. It kept those looking for change off my back and it was the reason I would give to those looking for a shower.
The guy with the broken bottle in my face wasn’t buying it. He thought I was from a newspaper or was selling pictures to one. I explained it was for school, for a grade. He was drunk, bloodshot blue eyes, the whites of them barely so. Still wasn’t buying it.
I named names, “I know Jonesy ‘the mayor of Copley square’ and Sixty, with the scar down the middle of his face, he just got jumped and hit with a brick a couple days ago.”
That was true. I met Sixty in the morning, went to school, and returned late afternoon just as the ambulance left with him inside. All the guys I knew were genuinely shaken. He owed somebody money, I was told. It was the same story I was given for the scar down the middle of Sixty’s face. Never saw him again.
I told the two gentlemen whose patience was running dry, that I hung out behind the Boston Public Library near the heaters, where you could keep from freezing in the winter.
He was cracking.
I named more names and more locations, names and locations I only knew because of the time spent hearing stories. His perspective was changing. Maybe I wasn’t who he thought I was?
"If I was from a newspaper, wouldn’t I use a better camera?"
The logic of that question, the story about my camera, all the people and places I knew. He dropped the camera, the metal body bounced off me. “You can always get something for it,” he told me, “Just don’t take our picture.”
I hadn’t before, ever, and promised not to.
He dropped the bottle. I jumped a little. He smiled and they both walked away. I went in the opposite direction, checking behind me, fueled by adrenaline.
One way to not get stabbed, tell a good story.