Sometimes, our most memorable images are ones we choose NOT to photograph.
I absolutely LOVE photography, as you can plainly see here on my website. When I return from a trip with my camera, my likeminded friends always ask the inevitable, “How many pictures did you take?”
They’re often surprised by my answer, which might be a number much lower than they were expecting. As much as I want to get that quintessential shot – what photographer doesn’t? – I’m also determined to enjoy life’s most precious moments with my own two eyes, not just from behind the lens of my Canon.
Striking that desired balance is an art form in itself, I believe, and I’m constantly striving to master it. There are times, though, when I’ve found myself with the perfect subject in the most ideal conditions… and chosen NOT to snap the picture.
Here are three that come immediately to mind:
Paris: Babes on a balcony
It was a long day. I was entering my 12th and final hour of racing around Paris. It was my final full day there, and the weather was cooperating nicely with my plans. I had terrible weather the first few days I was there, so, this was my last chance to get perfect pictures of Paris, both day and night. I was determined not to waste a second of precious time.
Darkness had finally fallen. It was approaching midnight, and I needed to get to Trocadero to see the Eiffel Tower perform its 10-minute sparkling light routine. I could easily make it by hopping on the Métro, but first, since I was already near Place de la Concorde, I wanted to get a classic shot of the Champs-Élysées with the Arc de Triomphe in the background.
I was walking briskly along a deserted, dimly lit street when something above caught my eye. It was the sound of clinking glasses, laughter, and general merriment. A party was in full swing on the top floor of an old building.
But what stopped me in my tracks was a silhouette. Two of them, actually. They were two women, that was easy enough to see, standing on a balcony, away from the boisterous bash going on inside. Their bodies were entirely in black, to my eye, as they were in front of open French doors and framed by a golden glow emanating from the interior.
These were young women, I ascertained… probably in their 20s or early 30s, tops. Both had flowing long hair. They faced one another with little distance in between and spoke intimately, so only they could hear whatever they were saying. This was clearly a private conversation. Probably about a man, I decided.
I couldn’t see their faces or make out any other discernable features, but I understood instantly that these were beautiful, elegant women. I was captivated. There I stood for several minutes, in the shadows on the street below, not eavesdropping exactly, as I couldn’t hear a thing they were saying, but simply engrossed in the thought of the wonderful conversation these two friends must have been enjoying.
It was such a universally human moment, and I wanted to capture it on film. But as I pulled my Canon halfway out of its case, I stopped. Something inside me decided not to infringe any further on these women’s privacy.
Rest assured, however, I will never forget them or the fleeting minutes we shared on that lonely Parisian street.
* * *
Tanzania: An ox on the outskirts
Four hours of driving, with brief stops every hour, and we’d arrive at our campsite in the Serengeti. We had just finished the first of the four legs and were still high atop Ngorongoro Crater. Our descent would continue over the next hour, as we made our way to Oldupai Gorge.
For the better part of that first hour, our vista was little more than the dense vegetation that threatened to swallow us up as we darted down a toothpick-thin dirt road.
But as we embarked on the second stretch, the landscape unfolded gloriously before us. The sky above became a brilliant royal blue. A massive valley of lush verdant pastures yawned for what had to be several miles in diameter. The road we were traveling ringed the uppermost ridge and steadily weaved its way across the circumference and down to the other side.
Deep in the valley, what looked like chocolate chips scattered on a lawn were actually the tiny huts of a Maasai village. It was a scene straight out of National Geographic.
And then it got better.
Rising toward us, an ox was climbing the steep ridge just below the road to our left. It was tethered to a large cart that overflowed with what had to be a heavy cargo of large branches, straw, and other materials for building huts.
Its every step seemed to make every muscle in its body ripple with stress, and my heart ache with sympathy. I hate seeing any animal reduced to a life of servitude, treated by unfeeling humans like some disposable piece of machinery.
A Maasai carrying a long, thin stick guided the ox in the direction he wanted it to go, which was the road on which we were traveling at that moment. The colors of the scene popped with a vibrancy that made my jaw drop. It was sad and beautiful and primitive and awe-inspiring. The vast expanse behind them made them look larger while making me feel small and insignificant.
Trying to make good time, our driver, Kiki, was giving our safari vehicle the gas, even though the roads we were navigating were largely winding, unpaved, and dangerously bumpy. But he was charged with taking direction from his passengers. If we asked him to stop the vehicle, at any time or place, he would be obligated to do so.
I could easily have requested that Kiki pull over so I could snap this gorgeous picture. Yet, I simply allowed my eyes to absorb it… and my mind to develop it over and over and over again.
* * *
Milano, Firenze, Palermo: The Dogs of Italy
Dad and I were taking a “passeggiata,” the classic Italian evening stroll, on my first night in Milan.
It was dusk, and the fashionable Milanese were out in force. We were looking for somewhere to grab a quick bite to eat before retiring for the evening. Having arrived in Italy that morning, neither of us was yet adjusted to the European time zone.
We walked from our hotel, just a few blocks from the grand Duomo, to a busy pedestrian zone. Turning left onto the crowded boulevard, a man and his dog stood out, though they were seated on the street beneath a covered kiosk. He was an old, bearded man, and his long white whiskers, hanging halfway down his chest, matched the color of his poor dog’s fur.
Both looked like they hadn’t bathed in weeks. Maybe longer. They were clearly a homeless family. His clothes were dirty and tattered. But it was the dog that truly broke my heart. He was a little thing, with a long, narrow snout. His eyes were forlorn and filled with resignation. As we approached, he got up and readjusted his posture, turning toward the man and curling up beside him. The poor animal looked like he’d given up on life.
Dad and I found a small outdoor café not far from these two vagabonds, but far enough away that they were out of sight while we ate. I couldn’t take my mind off them the whole hour-plus that we sat and watched the elegant Milanese world go by. I also purposely didn’t finish my food, because I planned to give it to the man and his dog, along with a cold bottle of water.
We finished our meal and headed back to our hotel, past the spot where the homeless duo had been sitting… but they had vanished. I furtively yet desperately scanned the area, but they were nowhere in sight.
Several days later, in Florence now, Dad and I were walking to Santa Maria Novella, the city’s main train station. It was scorching hot that day, with not a cloud in the sky to shelter us from the sun.
As we hugged the wall of a building along a narrow sidewalk, another man – this one much younger – was sitting on the ground. He was suffering from a birth defect that deformed his stubby arms and turned them outward. He wore a disheveled mop of curly, dark hair, which also resembled the curly fur of his large dog, who was baking on the sidewalk, eyes closed as he tried to sleep away his misery.
The memory of the Milano duo still fresh and weighing on my guilty mind, I stopped this time. I had no food and a bottle of water that was almost empty, but I had plenty of Euros. So, I gave the man what I could.
“Dio vi benedica (God bless you),” I said, placing the money in a small, virtually empty basket at his feet. I used the second-person plural and nodded at his dog to make sure he know I was referring to both of them.
“Grazie, anche a Lei (Thank you, same to you),” he responded with a genuinely grateful nod. This lame mendicant and his suffering dog had next to nothing, yet he was hoping that God would bless me. It took all my strength not to break down right then and there.
A week later, in Dad’s native hometown of Palermo, Sicily, we were visiting the hillside community of Monreale. The sun was not only still beating strong, but also being reinforced by the interminable scirocco winds – those steamy gusts that race across the ocean from North Africa and linger for days on end. The wind is so hot it burns your eyes.
As we entered the tiny town center, a pack of some half-dozen or more homeless dogs trotted languidly, tongues hanging and dripping with saliva, to the steps of a small building, which provided a modicum of shady relief. Their labored panting made my eyes sting and tear even more than the scirocco winds. I wanted desperately to pour out the contents of my water bottle for them to drink, but had nothing in which to put it for them to lap up.
The best I could do was pray for them.
On our long flight home, the Alitalia flight crew served us a tasty meal, then later, a light snack. My guilt was profound, for I couldn’t remove the images of those homeless dogs from my mind. Before finally digging in, I closed my eyes and tried to see their poor, beautiful faces as clearly as I could remember.
“This is for you all,” I said to myself.
To this day, whenever I see a homeless animal on my travels, I take a picture of it. I need to, as a reminder that while I’m indulging in life, there are so many less fortunate souls just struggling to endure it. And each time I enjoy a meal on an airplane, I think of and say a prayer for these beautiful animals — these dogs of Italy — and tell them silently that I’m having this food on their behalf. In this small way, I hope they will live on forever in peace.
* * *
So, why didn’t I preserve these profound images digitally?
Good question. Perhaps they were just so beautiful or sad, they left me awestruck. Or maybe I was too tired or lazy to pull my overworked camera out of its resting place.
Whatever the reason, these moments are nevertheless indelibly reproduced and stored in my memory, as clearly as if they were staring back at me on my laptop. As a result, they just might be the best images I’ve ever seen because they are mine alone, to guard jealously and conjure up at will.
The best part is, I don’t even need my laptop or camera viewfinder to revisit them. All I need do is close my eyes, and there they are.