The Pixel Thief and the Stranger of Antigua
The pressure to capture images can be nerve wrackng. I seldom shoot for my own amusement, but to gather the assets required to tell a story and complete an editorial project. You won't find me casually wandering the streets like a lost tourist. I probably look worse with my eyes darting in all directions and cameras swinging from my neck. In most cases my time is limited, often condensed to mere minutes in a given setting. It's never enough time to find the shot––and get it. For each image I've managed to snag, hundreds more have eluded me.
My recent trip to Guatemala in November produced one of my favorite images of the year and proves once again how much chance contributes to the process. With only a week to see and do what most visitors fit into twice the time, my final day in Antigua was stressful. I hadn't been able to shoot as much as I needed to, and my memory cards were depressingly void of good frames.
With just a few hours left to capture what I thought was the essence of the city, I hopped on a bike and headed to a busy square where a dozen women gathered at a communal wash station to scrub away at the week's laundry. It was an interesting scene, but after fifteen minutes I realized my image wasn't there. As I walked back to my bike, two men working on a sidewalk caught my eye.
There are two ways to capture a travel portrait. You can shove your camera in the subject's face, or you can steal their picture from a distance with a long lens. Lacking the courage to solicit the subject's approval, or more importantly to record the candid moment, I ducked behind a wall hoping to not spoil the scene. With my camera raised I depressed the shutter button. The two men came into focus just as one of them looked––right at me. Normally this would spell the end of my image-making efforts, but these two fellas seemed unimpressed by the tall gringo with the big camera.
With the splash and chatter of women doing their washwork behind me, I popped off more shots. Each successive frame closed in tighter on the weathered face of the man in the wide-brimmed hat. I lowered myself to one knee to catch the edge of a small wall to give the scene some depth. I opened up the aperture ring on my lens to bring the background into better focus. Too often I find a great face with a crap background, but this scene couldn't have been any better. Behind his face the textured paint and earth-toned windows filled the frame beautifully.
I didn't have to view any of the shots to know I had finally nabbed a keeper. I've come to learn opportunities like these are fleeting. The best photographers can't fabricate them, they just happen. Unless you have a camera glued to your face continually, having it in your hands the moment one of these scenes is presented is really a matter of––luck.
As I tucked my camera into my pack, the man in the hat finally made eye contact with me and gave me a polite nod. I did the same, mounted my bike, and slipped into the crowded street. I continued to fill my memory card with images, some of them worth the effort, none of them as good as the shot gifted to me by The Stranger of Antigua.