Last week, I spent three days in Boston while on business. There’s no more stately city on the East Coast, in my opinion, than this colorful patchwork of brick and steel, cobblestone and concrete, shade-dappled neighborhoods and gleaming towers of industry.
My work was based out of Boston’s trendy South End, near the Back Bay and Northeastern University. While I was there I got the chance to walk all the way across town to Long Wharf on the North End. I consider myself lucky that the schedule allowed me that much freedom to walk—and take photos—while I was there.
I felt like I really got the chance to capture Boston.
Or did I?
Looking at my photos upon my return, I noticed a disturbing trend. Take a look at a few of the better images. From photo to photo, what is consistently missing?
Did you catch it?
If you guessed water, you’re partially correct. (Unfortunately my phone battery died on me right before I reached the bay. But besides water something else is missing. Something major. Look again, in fact.
How many people did you see?
That’s right. There’s not a single close-up of a human being in any of these images—and in the few that contain people at all, they’re really just there for scale (and because I couldn’t tell them to “shoo!” before I took the image!)
And yet, some of the most beautiful and poignant things I saw in Boston involved people. Take a small girl, for example, her nose plastered to the second-floor window of a shopping center, eyes wide with delight as she watched the traffic drive past outside. She was wearing a white helmet with colored stars all over it, her tiny fingers clinging to one hand of her mother, who carried (in the other) a small scooter the girl must have been riding only moments before. They stood together, mother and child under a crown of stars: a single moment of rest in an otherwise active day.
Then there was the taxi driver who kindly took me home after I’d gotten myself lost on a two-hour walk to the waterfront. He was from Africa. Never did say which nation, just called it “my country,” as he shared his story of emigrating, working in the hospitality industry until he’d saved up enough money to buy his own taxi, and taking the licensing exam. I told him how I used to be an ESL teacher, and had African students who wrote their essays late at night between ferrying their own taxi customers across town.
But perhaps most poignant of all was the homeless woman who walked daily through the large upscale shopping center near my hotel, her faded rags a sharp contrast to the smart fashions in the window displays she passed. One morning, on my way to the convention center, I spied her in a little-trafficked hallway. She was standing before the glass wall, watching her own reflection as she sang opera at the top of her lungs, the lyrics scratched on a wrinkled scrap of paper in her hand.
I could not help but pause to listen to the haunting sound. She had no other audience, yet with that sort of poise, had she once sung for large audiences? What had brought someone with such skill to a life with two plastic bags and a one-bench address?
For a few moments, I watched. For a few more, I wondered. Then I went on my way.
But never once did I take out my camera.
Looking back on all of it, I wonder why I did not take those pictures: the portraits of the people captured my attention, or left an impression, or offered a gesture of kindness to a stranger in their city. What is it that leaves my photos—my tangible memories—faceless?
Is it fear? Fear of what people will think if I ask to take their photo, of turning them into some sort of object to be gawked at, of failing to do them justice?
Is laziness? Buildings, after all, are far more predictable and easier to photograph. One or two quick snaps, and I’m likely on my way again.
Perhaps it’s my camera. The iPhone 4S is not known for the quality of its camera. Or maybe it’s my Aspergers, leading me to connect more naturally with environments than with the humans who inhabit them.
Honestly, I haven’t figured out yet exactly why I don’t take photos of people. But I know that I want to. And that the first step toward changing one’s behavior is being aware of it.
Two days from now, I leave for New York City for Maker Faire. And I’ve already promised myself that NYC, unlike Boston, won’t be a faceless album.
Even even if it’s only one moment, and one individual … this time, I will capture the faces that fill the city.
Because what is a city without its people, anyway?
One might very well argue it’s a city without a soul.