Of the thousands of photos I’ve made over the past decade, most lay forgotten. For good reason. But some I’m drawn back to over and over again. They symbolize, or even define not only the moment they freeze, but a larger moment that I hope to carry with me for the rest of my days.
This series of portraits represents one of those. They came to be at the tail end of a brief conversation prompted by a soft tug for attention from a homeless man reaching out gently for a handout. It’s likely a common scene, played out around the clock in urban areas around a world with no shortage of desperation.
I often interact with street people. I try not to ignore them or their pleas. It’s important to try and understand, empathize or just listen to their stories, each experience unique. But I haven’t always been successful. Until this brief interaction two years ago in Bogota with a man who introduced himself as “a beautiful man” soon after pulling on my camera strap.
An immediate impulse would have been to grow defensive, but when I turned and faced him, I couldn’t. I just listened instead. Which is what I’ve tried to do when encountering and interacting with street people since. I’m glad to have made these images that help make that moment less evanescent.
I snapped three photos of the man; the third below was used to lead a post I published here two years ago about Colombia’s the so-called False Positives scandal, an especially heinous episode in the country’s five-decade long conflict that included extrajudicial killings by government forces in order to inflate body counts. Among the victims were homeless from several cities that were rounded up, executed and later presented as rebel fighters.
In case you missed it, I reposted below the introduction to that post which describes the interaction with the beautiful man. I hope he’s doing well.
The newest building in Bogota’s central Plaza Bolivar is the Palace of Justice, a light brown marble structure that dominates the 350-year-old square to the north. It was constructed in 1989 to replace the structure that was destroyed four years earlier in the aftermath of an infamous siege by members of the M-19 guerrilla group. The battle to retake the building left 120 dead on both sides including 11 of the 24 Supreme Court Justices who were taken hostage.
I slowly turned my attention from the building towards the early 19th century cathedral 45 degrees to its right, trying to imagine the chaos than must have enveloped the square on that November day three decades ago. My reconstruction was interrupted by a gentle tug on my camera strap from behind.
I turned quickly to find a slight man, dressed in a dirty loosely fitting suit jacket, sporting a friendly smile.
“Hey! Want to take a picture of me?” He said. “A perfect souvenir of Colombia!”
The man was as dirty as his clothes, his thick dark hair greasy. His beard and mustache were gray as the day surrounding the scene except for the patch that covered his upper lip, stained by years of tobacco abuse but given shape by his round genuine smile.
“I’m a beautiful man,” he said this time in English. “Take a photo.”
I had a pocket full of change and some small bills.
“I’d be happy to,” I said.
He took a step back, and smiled again. This time it reached his eyes. He raised his soiled right thumb and I snapped three quick shots.
His spiel was standard fare; he was hungry, he hadn’t eaten all day, he needed money, he wouldn’t spend it on drink. He then asked for a thousand pesos.
I emptied my pocket of change and handed it to him along with a thousand peso note. Combined, a little over two thousand, less than a dollar.
“That’s what I pay my models,” I tried to tell him. I began to walk towards a vendor who was selling grilled sausage and asked him to join me. But he had already begun walking in a different direction, toward another stand where two young women were selling bootleg CDs.
“I’m beautiful man,” he said to one of them. He then turned towards a couple. Each held a camera in their hand.
For the record: today Pic du Jour, the site’s 1,237th straight, was snapped in Bogota, Colombia, on 13 June 2015.