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Not me, her

In 1987, I found myself trying to write about a high school girlfriend that had been molested by her father when she was a child. I was 19 years old, struggling to find my way through a screenwriting assignment about delivering character. The idea was to describe messy young love between two Sid and Nancy want-to-be's. But that failed, as I could not stomach oversimplifying her complicated past, events that shaped her life as a 16 year old with a mohawk, a smart mouth, a lingering stare. I understood that I had to start at the very beginning.

No one wanted to hear the story. When it was my turn to read in class, it even came to be that some of the other students asked to stand in the hallway before they heard another description of what happened in that lonely little house in the middle of nowhere. I was trying, and failing, and trying again to get things right, to explain how this happened, how it could happen to this girl, how this man found his way to acts of selfishness and d…

the planned shot (a free ride)


There is a plan. I leave early, getting off the trolley bus as it lurches along the river. The water is brown, brackish not reflecting the blue sky. A white arc paints across the clouds, the leftover from some small plane. The cemetery sits across the water behind a line of trees. It was one of the first places I visited here, almost twelve years ago when I was just a tourist. Eisenstein is buried there. I have not visited it since then.

The party boats eventually make their way, music pumping but no one dancing on them. Flags are flapping hard and stiff in the wind. I wait, and check focus and then shoot two frames, foreground and background maybe adding up to something thoughtful or maybe something too obvious. I just can't tell right now. I know those gold onion-shaped domes in the distance are what everyone thinks of when they imagine Moscow, and these specific ones do mean something to me.

A man is fishing nearby, and I wander over to stand behind him. His pole drapes over the water. It smells foul here, like dead animals and kerosene. He adjusts the brim of his cap, stares out at the water. I cannot resist taking pictures of fishermen, a great metaphor for street photography but maybe that is clunky and obvious. My father is a fisherman, as was his father. The reason is always personal too.

The boats chug by, and I shoot a few more of them convinced this layered composition is good for the end of the book. Then I go to pick up E.

Her camera swings from her neck, loaded with black and white film.

At the bus stop, we wait. I see a line of soldiers all with giant duffel bags on their shoulders. There are three grey buses, sitting open and empty. I nudge E. Take it, take the shot I tell her. My camera is empty and I reload.
A stray dog rests in a patch of sunlight and E tiptoes around it.
"Can I really take it?" She asks.
I nod yes, poking my chin out.
She shoots two, maybe three frames and retreats.
I think she is starting to understand, this is a little bit like robbing a bank. This stepping from the shadows trying to remain invisible and then back again. Does the fisherman respect the fish? I like to think yes, but they can catch them and throw them back. What we are up to is far more messy, more grey.

The young soldiers file in, and I try to take a few as a police car cruises past us, as women with flowers in their hands step past, as a minivan wobbles around potholes. They are all almost inside before I get anything reasonable.

Our bus slumps to the curb and we wander in. That stray dog is somehow behind us, finding an empty spot on the floor with his mouth pressed against his paws. I like the idea of him getting a free ride somewhere.





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