A Beautiful Man, Revisited

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.

 

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31 Comments

  1. Montana Rose Photography says

    I always enjoy your post, but this one….for some reason, I really love that last line on this one. I think it is the beauty in his confidence. Knowing that regardless of his situation, he’s a beautiful man. I know I don’t know his whole story, but these pictures say a lot.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – I interact with ‘street people’ fairly often, and this particular interaction was quite different.

      1. thetimidmouse says

        I read that comment and I think that’s a good real life experience. At least you know the nitty Gritty, the good, and everything in between.

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks Stef, much appreciated.

  2. thetimidmouse says

    I absolutely loved this story and that man is a beautiful man in his own way. This story can teach us so much about common morals and decency. Plus, great photography. 🙂

    1. Bob R says

      Thanks – it’s an encounter I won’t soon forget.

  3. seok3v says

    Wow, I wonder what his story is. Iconic photo! By the way, if I was living on the streets in Columbia, second to food I would definitely spend any money I could get my hands on, on drink, or whatever else would take me away from that reality in some way, especially at night. Many people think that people end up on the street because of drink or drugs, but it can often be the other way around!

  4. Thomas Kønig says

    Sounds like he found a way to find a little beauty in this world, despite his circumstances. That is an admirable thing. I hope a little luck will shine on him soon enough. And kudos to you for sparing the change. Compassion is always worth it! 🙂

  5. healingpilgrim says

    A touching story and strikingly intense and beautiful photographs. Thanks for sharing notes from your experience and insights. Although I’ve not been to Columbia (yet!), I’ve befriended a homeless elderly woman here (the bag lady of Ubud, Bali), who is largely unseen and ignored – even by other locals. I check in, we chat, sometimes I offer her food – but just as often she refuses. The locals stare; I suppose they don’t understand.. our tiny but meaningful connection.

  6. Insane girl says

    Wow… such a beautiful story. Extremely Touched.

  7. gemmnarvaez says

    I just love the interaction, that for me, is the main purpose of urban photography. To create bridges between the photographer and the object, person or place being photographed.

    Simple Amazing, sending so much love to you and this beautiful man

  8. Nikki says

    Beautiful story and sentiment. It’s easy to look past those less fortunate but it’s so much more meaningful to look them in the eyes and find space in your heart to spread a little love.

  9. Omar says

    Nice……..great job…….

  10. Craftyartistkc says

    Too often we are quick to judge those that are different than us. I fail at loving every human so often, I’m ashamed to say. But I have also been in the situation where I needed help and had to learn to accept it and not feel degraded by it. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story and this beautiful man.

    1. Bob R says

      No reason to be ashamed by your honesty; that sort of judgement is something we’re all guilty of to one extent or another.

  11. florealzz says

    Thank you for sharing this story and giving a voice for interactions that I feel are too often undertold. This was really compelling

  12. nattychin says

    I love this mans ‘beauty’. Even at its worst life can still make you smile and appreciate interaction with others without judgment and see them as another brother or sister

  13. stylishlyjordan says

    I worked with people experiencing poverty and homelessness for the past few years. It is amazing how the people I work with would often rather you listen to their story than to give them a handout. We so easily discard our fellow man. Love your pictures and your reflection!

  14. mnmlister says

    Beautiful blog!

    1. Bob R says

      Thank you. You’re welcome back any time.

  15. Sarah says

    Beautiful story!

Thoughts?

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