Our intrepid traveler is two weeks into a month of lecturing at conferences, newspaper workshops and universities in Shanghai, Chongqing, Hefei and Zhengzhou, China. This follows last summer’s Fulbright to Beijing, where he taught at three universities, and where at one workshop, he was introduced as “Mr. Joke.” Herein follows Mr. Joke’s reprise.
Every photographer is haunted by the pictures he or she has missed.
Whether by laziness or ineptitude, these ghostly images imprint themselves maddeningly on the inner eye like some silly tune you can’t get out of your mind.
So it was with the abacus woman. There she was — in the doorway of her shop, the light just so, as she used this ancient device to do her sums.
Yes, I had a camera with me, of course, but it was in my backpack. Useless. And my mind was elsewhere; I had come to the store to purchase a desk lamp. It was only after I walked out of the store and was halfway back to the hotel that I realized, The Abacus Lady— there she was, indelibly imprinted on my inner-eye. A photograph I should have made.
For another five minutes I berated myself for my creative sloth. And then, I finally convinced myself to Turn Around and Go Back, you big goober.
Of course. She was gone. Gone too was the abacus, and the light, and the magic moment with it, now taunting me.
Leaving the store a second time, now feeling flat and deflated, I promised myself to not return to the hotel until I had made up for the gaffe. I would stay out until I had made a photograph worthy of the one I’d botched.
After wandering around the market area for a long while, I was about to give up, when I passed a primitive wooden pull-cart I had photographed yesterday. It had been the workman’s frayed gloves that had attracted me, as they lay there beside his wicker baskets, the glove fingers work-worn and holey.
I had wondered, what sort of man wore these gloves? Certainly a hard-working old soul, for sure.
That’s when I spotted him: an old man, by his look and gait many years my senior. Yet steady in his gaze and purpose as he went about his task of picking up trash and stray bits of wilted lettuce from the sidewalk and depositing these items in his baskets.
This photograph was not going to get away from me, I vowed. But how to capture the candid photo without giving myself away? For there I was — the only white dude I’d seen in two weeks in Chongqing — and bald-headed too! When I go around town, everybody looks; I’m sort of like a walking lighthouse. So anonymity here is a definite challenge.
Luckily today, I’d worn a black hat to cover my head, as well as a black T-shirt, which helped to mute the black camera’s presence. I camped out on a bench in the direction where I knew the old man must drag his cart — but far enough away so as not to around his suspicion. And I waited.
Pre-setting the camera’s exposure controls and placing the camera innocently on one knee. I wondered how could I pull off this shot? I’d only get one chance.
During the summer of ’98 when I served as a faculty fellow at National Geographic Magazine, the great Nat Geo photographers taught me the secret of capturing such amazing moments: become boring, they told me. Become invisible.
But how am I going to do that in China, where I could not look more different from the locals even if I tried?!
Then it struck me: Do what everybody else is doing! Talk. And talk on your cell phone. Even if you don’t have anyone to really talk TO!
Pulling out my phone, I began jabbing buttons and chattering away absently, all the while keeping a wary eye on the old trashman, who appeared about ready to head my way with his heavy load.
Then here he came.
I pretended to look away in disinterest, jabbering away gaily to my imaginary friend, as the old man walked directly in front of me with his pull-cart.
Without looking at the camera, I carefully squeezed the shutter release button, uttering a silent prayer to the gods of photography. Please, let it be!
Did I get the image?
And the haunting image of the Abacus Woman suddenly evaporated — vanished — forever exorcised.