As I was walking the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City this past summer (2013), I noticed a elderly man on the pedestrian path was selling water out of a portable cooler on a dolly. Now if you have never been to New York City in the summer time it gets ridiculously hot especially during the heat waves, and just my luck the entire three weeks I was there it was 35 degrees every day. As soon as I heard this man shout out "COLD WATER.... ONLY ONE DOLLA" in his Arabic accent I could not resist. Gulping down the water as quickly as I gave the man my money I decided to see if he would allow me to take his photo. The man graciously said yes and we exchanged names. His name was Ahmed and he had been in New York for the past 6 weeks and was headed back to Egypt to see his family at the end of the summer. After our small and brief conversation Ahmed immediately asked a passing tourist to take a photo of the two of us on his mobile phone. We thanked each other for the encounter and we went our separate ways.
I recently went to New York City for three weeks for a project that I am working on involving the New York City dance community. Usually when I travel for an extended period of time for a specific project, I try to allocate a few days where I just walk with my camera photographing only what I see in that moment with no prior intent, concept, or idea. These are some of my favorite experiences I have when traveling because there is no set destination and there is no pressure from any outside influence; it is just me, my camera, and the outside elements. On one particular day I decided to walk North from Brooklyn at 4:30pm and after 15km in 40 degree heat, I came across a woman who I noticed was collecting bottles from trash bags that were placed on the curb/sidewalks in front of what looked like an upscale restaurant in mid town Manhattan. As I walked by, I briefly made eye contact with the woman where we both exchanged a quick smile and as quick as she looked up her attention was back to the task at hand, collecting bottles out of the 12 or more large bags that engulfed her tiny body. As I kept walking, I stopped just over thirty feet past her casually leaning against the adjacent building watching her activity intently. After about five minutes this tiny woman starts carrying one of the large plastic bags that she has filled with aluminum cans and drags it to a shopping cart next to her. She struggles to tie the bag of cans to the already hanging six or so bags of cans and bottles that have swallowed her shopping cart. Noticing her dilemma, I quickly walk over and offer some help by tying the full bag to anything that would hold it's weight without it's contents spilling onto the street. Once the bag was secure the woman looked at me and gave me the biggest smile and in broken English said "Thank-you". I realized this would be a great opportunity asking her to take her photo. Given my experience of being denied photographing woman in similar circumstances, I was surprisingly shocked when she immediately agreed where I then snapped off ten or so frames. After I finished the last frame, she gently tapped her chest and said "Me... Lilly". We both smile, I tell her my name mimicking her hand to chest motion and end our encounter with a friendly handshake and we go our separate ways. It was only after I had walked 50 feet that I quickly turned around and went back to ask Lilly another question seeing the potential in our chance encounter. As I came around the corner and coming face to face with my new friend, I asked her if I could follow her for an entire day photographing her daily life and activities. Realizing that she spoke very little English and only Mandarin, I was quickly faced with difficult language barriers I had in Bangladesh re-living that sense of helplessness and in a city where English is one of the first spoken languages. After many attempts at trying to find out where she would be in the afternoon the next day, we both realized and knew the language barrier was too great. Not giving up, I asked for her mobile number in very poor hand signals in hopes of calling her the next day to try again. She agreed and gave me her number.
The next day I called Lilly at noon asking her where she was and within minutes it was the same scenario from our first encounter the day before. Neither of us could understand one another and we were both reluctant to hang up the phone but we knew it was inevitable and after a a couple minutes our phone call had ended. Sitting on the sidewalk with my back to a building, I knew I could make this meeting happen. I looked up and saw a food truck. Never denying myself food and always being able to think better with something in my stomach, I decided to eat as it might be a good idea so I can come up with a different approach to meeting up with Lilly. As I glanced at the menu from the hole in the wall food truck, I ordered my chicken paratha (South Asian oily flat bread). Waiting for my order, I noticed an Asian man walk up behind me also wanting to place an order. I immediately turned to the man and said "I know this may sound crazy but do you happen to speak Cantonese or Mandarin"? The gentleman looked at me a bit puzzled, then smiled and said "I actually speak both languages fluently but I am Malaysian". I then told him who I was and that I wanted to photograph this woman but was unable to communicate with her. I suggested to the man I call Lilly from my phone and from there he can immediately take over the conversation and essentially be my translator and get her location. The friendly man agreed. I quickly dialed the number, Lilly answered, I tell her it's Jeremy, and then I pass the phone to the gentleman. After 20 seconds he starts talking with her and within 2 minutes Lilly tells the man her location and the conversation ends. I thank the man offering to pay for his meal, he declines, we shake hands, he wishes me good luck, and I am off running towards the nearest subway, chicken paratha in hand making my way down to West 4st.
Once I make it down town I had no problems finding Lilly. She was just as smiley and friendly the evening I met her. I tried explaining why I wanted to photograph her that day but again the language barrier was to difficult and I was yet again on a mission in search for another stranger who could speak Mandarin for me. After many "no's" from various foot traffic, I finally came across a woman who was more than willing to help translate some questions I had for Lilly. Within 10 minutes or so everyone was on the same page and Lilly was more than happy to let me follow her around photographing her daily routine.
Lilly is 58 years old and comes from a small village in China. She lives in New York City with her husband and has for the past 13 years. Lilly used to work in a restaurant in China Town, however the restaurant has shut down and she tells me it is hard to find work because she does not speak English. She spends her days collecting glass bottles and aluminum cans from various store fronts and apartment buildings where the owners and general public greet Lilly as if she were their closest friends. Back in China Lilly has two children where her daughter is in her 20's and is a house keeper and her son is in his 30's and is a driver for a local company. I could not help notice the amount of recyclables Lilly collects on a daily basis and I was curious to find out how much she makes on a average day. It turns out she collects $20-$30 worth of cans and bottles in a 10 hour day.
One early morning as I was meeting a friend in a downtown local coffee shop in Calgary, I kept noticing a face out of the corner of my right eye and could not help but casually stare. I couldn't tell you exactly what forced me to stare at this gentleman so many times. Perhaps it was his trendy outfit, his soft facial features, maybe it was the beard, and the fact I could not get the strange childish voice out of my head "You need to photograph that guy". When I was done my meeting, I gathered my things, took one last quick glance at the man sitting to my right and headed straight for the door. As I walked outside I kept repeating to myself both in my head and in a dull whisper..." I need to photograph that guy, just go back Jeremy and ask him... don't worry it will be fine... what's the worst that can happen?". I went back into the coffee shop, gathered my wits, and slowly approached the man. The difficult thing now was he had his back to me and his seven friends that surrounded him quickly realized I was some stranger about to say something. As I approached the group telling them who I was, the project I was doing, I then turned to the bearded man I wanted to photograph. As I continued to explain leaving him with the opportunity to answer, he immediately said "NO", his friends were disappointed with his answer and encouraged him to say yes making jokes on why he should say yes. I gave the man my card and said "It's completely up to you and if you change your mind please do not hesitate to call me".
Two weeks later I received a phone call from Conrad Ouchi.
Conrad was born in Vernon BC where he and his wife moved to Calgary in 1975 looking for work as graphic designers. Studying at the kootney school of art, Conrad was a freelance graphic designer for 13 years and then slowly started to decide to become an full time artist. The decision to pursue art happened when Conrad went to Chicago for a conference, from there he was immediately inspired.
Conrad now lives in Calgary pursing his painting and most recently experimenting with photography.
I first met Aaron just over 2 years ago when we both had exhibitions at the Okotoks Art Gallery. Aaron is a Calgary Artist whose paintings are no less than incredible with an amazing talent for painting portraiture. I will not even begin to describe his work as you need to see it for yourself here -> http://aaronsidorenko.ca/ When I asked Aaron if I could photograph him he was more than willing, but with much humorous hesitation, worried that his dashing good looks might break the camera lens. The shoot lasted only about an hour where we spent most of the time setting up lights in his small studio downtown. Working in such a confined environment, we managed to highlight both his environment and Arron himself, just don't let his seriousness be to deceiving as Aaron will be the first to crack inappropriate jokes, smoke from his large collection of tobacco pipes, and talk about his new love for the ever so popular instagram app!!
I came across Balvir by chance one evening while I was photographing an event late one evening in downtown Calgary. While I was outside on Ninth Avenue waiting for my ride, I noticed a man through a set of tall floor to ceiling windows next to the restaurant. I assumed the man was South Asian from his long beard, he was older with weathered hands, and casually mopped the lobby floor as my face was pressed firmly against the glass. The only thought flooding my mind at that moment was am I going to get the chance to photograph this man. After a few phone calls, a couple meetings with the buildings management, and a security clearance, two months later I finally managed to meet with Balvir having only fifteen minutes to photograph him followed by a short interview. Balvir Shargill comes from the city Ludhiana located in the Punjab province of India. Using Balvir’s work supervisor as my translator, I asked Balvir when he was born, he responded by saying “…I don’t really know… I think I am sixty years old, but I am not too sure”. Balvir was a dairy farmer back in India raising cattle and growing a variety of crops. It turns out he has only been in Canada less than one year and has come here through a sponsorship his son has provided. Bringing his wife to Canada as well, the two of them live with Balvir’s son, cleaning part time while Balvir’s son teaches them both English where the couple plan to become permanent residents in the near future.
Balvir's portrait can be seen at the Art Gallery of Calgary (http://www.artgallerycalgary.org/) until December 14th, 2012.