As I waited for my taxi at the main train station in Bratislava, Slovakia, I looked over and noticed this gentleman reading the paper. My immediate urge was to photograph him, but with my camera packed away in my luggage, I walked past and continued on my way. I glanced back again and felt an inexplicable desire to talk to him, to connect. Despite the need to find my driver, I walked over and introduced myself. He put his paper down and started a conversation that lasted until I finally had to leave.
Despite the fact I regularly photograph people on the street, I usually assume the person I’m approaching will be bothered or have no desire to talk to a stranger. I am almost always wrong. People want to talk. They want to connect. They want to learn about and share with others, even strangers. For me, it’s one of the pleasant surprises of life. I think in today’s world of social media and impersonal communication, this reality is even more pervasive. As I looked at the portrait above I recalled something photographer Sebastiao Salgado once said: “I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg.”
What is it about a photograph, a sound, a smell, or great literature that makes us feel and compels us to connect? I began re-reading Beach Music by Pat Conroy this week for at least the third time. Regardless of how many times I’ve read the same words, they connect me to my home state of South Carolina in ways nothing else does. He tells the stories of other boys’ youth, but they connect me to mine. To accurately explain why his books fill that need in me I could only re-type his words here. A description is impossible. Have words ever effectively described a great sculpture or famous painting? Art would not be art if words could explain it.
My experiences in Central Europe remind me real, meaningful connections happen when we are open to them more often than when we seek them. Conroy’s words let me feel, smell, and taste home because I let them, not because I try. It’s the same with the people I approach on the street. I simply walk up and allow the connection to happen. It almost always does. I believe it’s something inside us we all share, and why Desmond Tutu’s quote appears on my website and above – “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”