a picture is worth a thousand “words”…

have you ever crossed paths with one of those transcendental people that totally changes your outlook on things?

this past summer i hit a bit of a rut with my photography. soon i was going crazy in my own head.

“is this the right career for me?”

“am i gonna end up working at a photo booth in k-mart?”

“is pluto even a fucking planet anymore!?”

things were getting bad. thank god i was asked to be an instructor for steve’s workshop in nyc. at least this would distract me from my career’s impending doom for the weekend. but it did me one better, it proved to be one of the most productive and eye-opening outings i’ve had as a burgeoning photographer.

being surrounded by uber talented people that shared my passion was a breath of fresh air. no, that doesn’t do it justice. i believe my exact words to jeff were “my loins are aquiver with excitement,” at which point he slowly stepped away from me. you have to understand, at the time my photo career (if you can even call it that) was less than 6 months old and had been spent mostly indoors. either working in steve mccurry’s studio/lair/cave/den or doing photoshop in my filthy hole-of-a-room in my parent’s house (go ahead, judge me). this workshop was gonna put me out in the real world with some of the best.

so they set me the task of leading a group of bright-eyed students through chinatown along with several other instructors. i jumped at it because chinatown is by far my favorite place to shoot in nyc. it’s the next best thing to being in a different country without leaving the cozy clean welcoming streets of manhattan. hardy har har.

now seeing as i wasn’t getting paid to take on these responsibilities, we let the students wander around solo for 6 hours (“have fun guys!”) and i took it upon myself to do some serious learning of my own. so i challenged myself to take portraits of people all day. strictly headshots. no scenes or events. just attempting to capture people’s souls in a picture. it proved harder than i thought. im not talking about capturing someone’s essence, im talking about getting people to stand for a freakin’ picture. it was damn near impossible! granted, i’m not sure if half the people in chi-town are even legal, so they weren’t exactly making it easy for me. but this is why i was tasking myself to shooting portraits. you have to be brave and go beyond yourself to take street portraits. why?

1. you’re cold-calling a total stranger and asking them to do you a favor

2. you’re a total waste of their time, what’s in it for them?

3. how the hell do they even know you’re a good photographer, or a photographer at all! you could be a sociopath looking for their next victim.

but the fine man you see below got me started. i nervously walked up to this guy and asked, “can i please take your picture, sir?”

he looked at me with eyes that said “i’ve figured out the meaning of life” and simply said, “certainly”. he relaxed, looked straight into my camera with his omniscient gaze replete with tranquility and…


Picture 45

i took a couple of shots and we got to talking. his name is clifton and he’s retired. he now considers himself a hobbyist (“hobbyist”…fantastic). apparently he’s a hot commodity for photographers. and who can blame them? isn’t he an epic human being? this picture has become my gold standard for portraits. i’m in search of my next clifton.

after that it got easier. i’d say that throughout the day i asked about 200 people for their portrait. i MAYBE got 15 to actually do so. here are some of the more interesting characters:




Picture 65

kung fu monk: this guy was selling umbrellas out of a shopping cart on a side street. really smart when you think about it. mobile merchandise. when i asked him if i could take his picture he started presenting his umbrellas to me trying to make a sale. so i bought one and THEN he understood english. how convenient. these poses were his go-tos, so i snapped and moved on.


Picture 66

dread guy: this guy was seriously keepin’ it real. he was carping the diem. when i asked him for his portrait he deliberated for a moment and said, “sure, why not?”



john, nigeria: john took a little coaxing. he was very apprehensive about the picture until i threw him a lincoln. he said, “$5 gets you 2 shots” and i took 3.



this guy: he spoke zero english. like, negative english. i always remind myself that saying it louder doesn’t meant that they can understand better. but thank god he understood my archaic hand gestures and left that AWESOME cigarette in his mouth and kept ripping at it.



john, urban cowboy: im convinced this guy spoke perfect english but he spoke not a word. he stoically nodded his head with approval and i took the shots.


Picture 77

fat cigar man: class act, this guy. straight out of sopranos. i wish i’d gotten a frame with his body in it, there was a lot of him.


then the workshop continued to washington square park. i was on a portrait binge. i literally felt high just walking up to strangers, chatting them up and then selling them on the idea of letting a stranger take their picture.



chris, fashion designer: i actually had a really nice conversation with this guy. kinda looks like clark kent, right? i wonder if he’s superman? a fashion designing superman.



shareef, graphic artist/musician: this guy was the MAN. he was just shredding on his guitar when i walked up and shook his hand. he must have thought that we knew each other cause he said, “o hey brotha, how you been my man?” so i went along with it asking how his music was going. he gave me a some great shots.



robert, just happy to be here: this guy was a trip. he just walked up and stood next to me in silence for about 5 minutes. ripping cigs. “i used to be committed, man”, he said. “really, what to?” i naively asked. “no, like committed, man. institutionalized. i’m just happy to be here.” the whole conversation i had with this guy is another story.



lewis speldman, retired fish monger/”all-around good guy”: this guy worked in the nyc fishmarkets for 50 years. mad props. every wrinkle in his face tells a story.



bala, writer/philosopher: o bala, there is nothing i could say about this guy that would do you justice. bala was barefoot. that says more than anything.


this day of shooting portraits abolished all my fears of approaching random people for their portrait. once you’ve been rejected a couple hundred times, it doesn’t hurt so much anymore. especially if they do it in a language you can’t understand. it also made me much much pickier with the subjects i choose. i don’t know why i haven’t shot many portraits of women. maybe im not ready for that challenge yet. or maybe it’s because women don’t have beards like bala. and, as we all know, BEARDS ROCK!!



as shown in these play-by-plays, i covered a lot of ground that day.

Picture 74


Picture 71

washington square park


~ by jacobbmurphy on October 19, 2009.

2 Responses to “a picture is worth a thousand “words”…”

  1. Those shots you got that day were/are definitely sick, I was thoroughly impressed when you showed them to me the next day. I am in the same boat with street portraits that you had been in.
    Also let’s add in that bala was barefoot in the middle of Manhattan shortly after 2 days of epic rain had just come to a stop. Who knows what had been washed around. Keep it up dude.

  2. Jacob,

    Interesting story and great collection of portraits.

    I was one of the “bright eyed” students in McCurry’s workshop that weekend. It’s too bad you (and apparently the other instructors as well) decided to cut the students loose and focus on your personal work. Most of us would have appreciated more direction and, in particular, from Steve himself, who seemed distracted the entire weekend. The net result, or product, was a lackluster and thoroughly disappointing critique on the final day.

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