Welcome to the fourth post in an ongoing series of posts about my experiences photographing in Chicago using black and white film cameras. While Chicago is a city with lots of dramatic and visually pleasing things to see, the image that I'm highlighting today is on the opposite end of that spectrum and is perhaps the most emotional, heart-wrenching and difficult image I have ever made as a photographer. It is the fourth image in my series of Chicago in Black and White, and I call it "Broken":
Motivation and Information Behind Broken
I made this image on the corner of Superior Street and Michigan Avenue, in the heart of the famed "Magnificent Mile", a world-famous shopping and tourist destination. We were in Chicago for three days and each day we walked by this intersection and saw this Man in his wheelchair, at the same location, cup in hand, panhandling. Both of his legs were amputated just above the knees and he seemed to expend great effort just to sit up. Each time I saw him I had a gut-wrenching reaction, nearly bringing me to tears. While Chicago, like many big cities, is full of people sitting on corners asking for money, this Man was different. I don't know what it was but each time I walked by him I got a lump in my throat and a deep feeling of sadness. Upon reflection, this Man's situation seemed so much more real and desperate than all the other panhandlers we saw in Chicago, or any other place. I'm not really a "people photographer" to begin with and I really have mixed emotions about photographing homeless/street people. Because of that, along with the emotional impact this Man had on me, I initially avoided photographing him.
On our last day in Chicago I finally got up the nerve to make a photograph of him because I wanted to remember him and the impact he had on me. I had my Nikkormat with me, loaded with a roll of Ilford FP4. The camera had a 50mm lens on it so I had to get fairly close to him in order to make the image. I thought about getting very close to him, filling the frame with him in his wheelchair, but decided to make the photograph from a distance of about 30 feet or so, which felt more comfortable and allowed me to get a bit more of the surrounding area in the frame. In the several times that I had seen him he had been sitting up as well as slumped over in his wheelchair. This particular time he was slumped over, barely holding the plastic cup in his left hand. I set the exposure, focused on him and had to wait about 30 seconds until the flow of people cleared enough to take the shot.
After I made the photograph I walked up to him and tried to find out a little more about him. I said something to the effect of "how you doing buddy?" to which he raised his head and shoulders a bit and replied "I'm OK". I asked him his name but he didn't say anything as he slumped back over. I gave him a quick pat on the back and said "be safe and take care" as I put a $5 bill in his plastic cup and walked away toward our hotel.
A Lasting Effect
As I write this post, nearly five weeks later, I'm still strongly impacted by this image and the story behind it. I don't think I'll ever forget him and I hope that he stays safe. While he didn't have anything in the way of material goods to give me, this Man did give me a very important thing, the courage to put aside my internal hesitation and use my cameras photograph and document a part of our society that is too often ignored. To that I say "Thank You" and I will do my best to honor that gift as I move through life.