I and this mystery, here we stand ~ Walt Whitman
He is covered. His face is hidden, his body obscured. Yet he is known. Beneath the blanket is a human being. A former husband, a beloved son, the uncle who went off the rails. None of these, or all of these. It doesn’t matter. All we can manage is a guess. But what he was and who he is is a question that this image cannot answer or absolve.
He is homeless. He lives and sleeps on the streets. All else is speculation. It would be easy to say that he made poor choices just as it’s easy to blame his condition on anyone but ourselves. If only he did this, if only he did that. And it’s true, we are a product of our individual choices. But we are also the products of the choices we make as a group, as a society. And right now society chooses not see. But I do. I choose to see. The camera helps me see; and remember.
Beneath the blanket is a person. We can see the outline of a body by tracing the folds with our eyes, by reading the shadow lines. A shoulder, an elbow, a knee. We can tell that he’s slumped over to his right, his head lolling. Two parallel folds run from his ear to his shoulder blades, like an equal sign, suggesting motion, conveying the movement of his head from left to right; perhaps as he fell into much needed sleep.
He hides beneath the blanket, but succeeds in hiding only his name, only the surface characteristics that might allow us to judge him. He cannot hide his form. His form is obvious. This image is arresting because of this timeless, haunting form; the human form. And I am moved by it in the same way that I am moved by the ossified remains of those who perished in Pompeii. Those forms, rendered in stone – women, children, dogs – need not reveal names in order to convey identity, agony and truth. They were human. They died in pain.
The blanket hides his skin and hair and clothing but it cannot hide his bones. The bones of a vertebrate are the last parts of its incarnate self to disappear, to vanish as physical traces from the earth. Bones are what remains for years after death. The bones of the dead have given us so much of what we know about our recent and ancient past. It is bone that bears witness to the dead, and bone that ultimately bears witness to the living.
Bones. The structural foundations of the container we inhabit and the very makers of our blood. No fabric can disguise us. Beneath the cotton and the linen and the nylon, beneath the hats and the shoes and the tanned hides of creatures who were not blessed with big brains and opposable thumbs, are our bones; which we cannot hide for very long.
The camera ensures that I never forget those moments given to me, meant for me, to see and understand this gift of a life. Carry a camera and you can remember. What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to forget? What does it mean to see? Images, by the thousands, flash by my eyes, by the millions. And what is retained? Why do I remember? How do I remember? Beyond the science of it, beyond the psychology, is the connection, the ineffable bond between beings and beings, beings and non-beings, energy, light, form. The man beneath the blanket did not want to be seen. He did not want to be recognized. But I saw. Because I choose to.
The story of a photograph is as much the journey that led to it as is the subject itself. How does one person come to photograph another? How is it that two lives, two hurtling trajectories in this vast place, intersect? What a miracle, this living.
A photograph is like a handshake with the world. When one human being photographs another it is a form of touch, a form of intimacy. Like a handshake a photograph can be an affirmation, an act of respect, an endowment of dignity. If I photograph you, I am saying that I value you, that I don’t want to forget you, that I see God in you. If those feelings lie behind the intent then to photograph another human being is a sacred act. It is a spiritual meeting between strangers. The nature of that spirit lies in the heart of the photographer, but as we know there are dark hearts too, and malevolent intents. There is a kind of photography that undermines the human soul and mocks God, but that is another topic for perhaps another day.
I photograph friends and I photograph strangers. I’ve never met the man (or woman) beneath the blanket. He is therefore a stranger to me. I don’t know his story therefore I cannot rightly call him friend. But can I call him stranger now? The moment I see him as human, the moment I stop to recognize him, as soon as I pause my own narrative long enough to acknowledge his own, he is no longer strange to me. He lies now in the nebulous limbo between the familiar and the unknown. Every encounter is sacred.
I love him, though I do not know him. ~ Walt Whitman
He was on that particular portion of sidewalk on the one day I chose to bring my camera to work. There is no coincidence in this. I never do this. I got off the boat at the Ferry Building in San Francisco and took the camera out of my bag. I walked my normal route down Market Street; the aorta of this city. Five minutes into my journey I see this, a wheelchair on the sidewalk, just inside a shadow beside a column brightly lit with the first sun of the morning. It was September 28, 2011.
It was so incongruous – a person beneath a blanket on a sidewalk busy with commuters hurrying by with their briefcases, their heads buried in their smart phones. It didn’t look real, and it wasn’t real, it was surreal.
I took this photo in mid stride. I just raised my camera and clicked. One photograph, that’s all. What I really wanted to do was stop, to absorb this scene. I wanted to remember, and to remind myself how incredibly lucky I am, how remarkably blessed. Because only an hour before my shutter opened on the man beneath the blanket I was lying beneath my own blanket, on a bed, in a house; and I was warm.
In every photograph lies a kernel of truth. The object of photography is, for me, the same as the object of literary fiction. It is the search for truth, a universal truth. And ultimately, I believe, that truth is that we are all, in essence, the same. Bones are bones. My bones and your bones, when lying beside each other will tell us nothing but this: we were human, together. We loved and raged and laughed and wept. We breathed the same air and stared at the same moon. Even this man, whoever he is, has so much more in common with me than the other creatures, like dogs or cats, who I will stop to caress, and coo over, freely doling out my affection even though they are stranger and far more alien than my fellow human beings.
If I could have lifted the blanket and spoken to this man, if he would have listened, and if I had within me the courage to speak the truth, I would have said this: Sir, I’m sorry. I’m sorry you have to live like this. I’m sorry you have to live in a world where there is not enough love and understanding to go around. I’m sorry that you got short-changed in that. I’m sorry that you are shivering beneath a filthy blanket while I proceed to my high-paying office job, a three-thousand dollar camera in my hand, a piece of your soul trapped inside. I’m sorry.
People suffer and people die. That is the nature of this living. Little lives, so tiny in the great scheme of particles and energy that swirl around us, emerge like soap bubbles that drift upwards for a few moments, that go sideways, that bob in the wind and then pop. This man is a bubble. I am a bubble. And for a moment we wobbled together in the sun.
The man beneath the blanket sleeps. I do not know him but I love him. And I, in turn, am loved by God. I know this. Because I not only see so much more now, but what I do see are messages as clear to me as the pages in a book. The camera has allowed me to slow down and to listen – not just with my ears but with my eyes. What I have discovered is that there is so much more to see. I’m a honeybee, who sees invisible ultraviolet patterns on the petals of a flower.
From the very moment I chose to let go, to surrender the camera, which is my eye extended, I felt a shift. Now I am truly seeing. The eye at the end of my hand is a more patient eye, a more deliberative eye. The camera slows things down, it forces me to look closer, to look longer. It allows me to see beneath the surfaces of things, beyond the light, and those properties of physical beings and objects that reflect it. We’re just reflectors, you and I. But there is so much more beneath.
This piece was originally published in Stone Voices magazine.