By John Kennerdell
Handing out the occasional print, it seems to me, is one small thing we photographers can do in return for our intrusions into the lives of our subjects. It's also its own reward, at least in the corner of the world where I live. Most people hereabouts in rural Southeast Asia have never seen themselves in anything other than random snapshots or a stiff studio portrait. Give them a decent casual headshot and almost always they react with surprise and pleasure.
But this is the story of an exception.
The photo here is one of only two I ever took of this fellow, a moment after we smiled a greeting at each other at a weekly market some years ago. The shot was nothing special, but I liked the guy. He had a look of his own, something jaunty and indomitable. So I printed it up and slipped it into my bag with the other prints I would give out the next week.
As hoped, I found him again. That's when things went wrong. He stared at the photo for a long moment, as if almost unsure who it was. Then, without looking up, he said: "And what do I do with this?"
It was a question nobody had ever asked, and it brought me up short. Well, I started to say, give it to your wife. Then I realized that I'd never seen him with anyone. What if he lived by himself? What indeed would he do with a crinkly, wrinkly replica of his own face? Put it on a wall to make himself feel even older and more alone? Finally I came up with the only thing I could think of. "Maybe your grandchildren would like it," I said. The comment felt lame even as I said it. Kids love gifts from grandparents. But a geezer portrait?
It couldn't have satisfied him, but at least he didn't hand it back. It happens all the time here—you commit a faux pas and people treat you with a quiet graciousness that makes you feel like even more of an oaf.
Whatever he thought of the picture, it seemed to cement a small bond between us. Every week from then on he always made a point of coming over and, in a touchingly un-Asian gesture, shaking my hand. We never talked of much, but more than once he told me he was 79 years old, hale and hearty and still enjoying every day. Until one week when he admitted that no, he wasn't doing so well. It was a statement of fact, nothing else. I saw him a few times more but then, at some point, no more.
Life went on, as it does. I kept returning to the market whenever I was home between travels, still shooting and still occasionally giving out prints, just not to solitary old people. I mean, what had I been thinking?
And then one day I was passing around some prints to the usual general amusement when a pair of young women came up as if on a mission. They began thanking me repeatedly for something I didn't understand. Only when one of them kept saying "Taa...Taa"—Granddad—and I looked into her face did I somehow realize they were talking about this very fellow.
"We have an old wedding photo," she said. "But your picture looks the way we remember him."
So here's to you, Granddad. We barely knew each other but I still smile when I think of you, your hand-rolled cigarettes, your ancient sputtering motorbike, the pleasure you took in having a friend as unlikely as me. Despite your doubts, and mine too, our photograph seems to have found a good home.
John Kennerdell, an American who has lived and worked in Southeast Asia for most of his adult life, writes several posts a year for TOP. His website is Indochina Photoelectric. More of his writings for us can be found through the Categories list in the right-hand sidebar.
Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Dalen Muster: "Love the shot, and love the story! I had a similar experience in a sense. I was shooting candid portraits of sufferers of dementia in the lock-down section of a rest home. I decided to hang a half-dozen interesting ones in a nearby Starbucks. Within a day or so I received a phone call from the manager of Starbucks stating that there was an incident regarding the daughter of one woman's portrait, and that I needed to call her. Apparently she works nearby that Starbucks, and was in line to order her drink. Unaware that I had displayed the photograph of her mother she was caught by surprise when she saw the photo. She then stepped out of line, and proceeded to weep. I had somehow captured an expression that had not been seen in the years since dementia had overcome her.
"Thankfully she was thankful, and not angry. I gave her the print."
Richard Alan Fox: "Many years ago on a walk with my Plaubel 670 through Greenwich Villiage I happened across the artist Chaim Gross sitting on a chair in font of his studio. I asked if I could do a quick portrait and he agreed, click click and I walked on. I made a print and sent it via USPS; two or three weeks latter I saw his obit in the Times.
"Two months later I received a letter from his widow, Rene Gross, saying that Chaim saw the picture before died and was pleased at what was his last portrait. As he had a decades long relationship with Arnold Newman, I felt proud of the image. The letter continued that oh by the way at his Shiva (a Jewish wake) the portrait was on display and was stolen by a member of the public who came to pay respects, and could I please send another copy. I sent it on and that became the beginning of many photos and portraits I did for the family and the Chaim Gross Museum."
Crabby Umbo: "Love this story...
...Moved into a cheap one-room apartment in the center of the city I live in, starting to get on hard times myself, and keep most of my stuff in a storage space. My building is filled with people of all colors, creeds, and ages, with single retirees a big part of it all. Just to keep sharp, I've started doing 'one-roll' portraits, on 120 film, of people who come out for a few minutes to sit in front of the building or have a smoke. They always let me do it, but think I'm crazy, as 'who wants a picture of me?' I always give them a contact sheet, and they're always surprised at how they look. I get a lot of history of all those 'faces', and hear a lot of interesting things, and like to think I make a few of them happy. Not to put a political spin on it, but more than once I've remarked to friends than my life feels far more interesting than if I'd have moved into a cheap apartment in the far-west, all-white suburbs of my metro area...."