When I was a teenager, I worked as a sports reporter for my local weekly newspaper, the Skagit Argus. I covered high school sports, including a spectacular run by my high school basketball team, which won state two of the four years I was a student, and which produced future NBA and MLB pro Mark Hendrickson. Part of my journalistic responsibilities included taking and developing pictures. I loved having access to a darkroom, and often took pictures of my friends and my band just for fun.
One of the things I learned about taking pictures of sports was that sometimes you simply focused on a spot on the playing field and snapped a picture whenever something happened there. The vast majority of the time, these pictures didn’t turn out. But sometimes I was excited to see that I had captured a shot of a baseball just about to land in a catcher’s mit, or a particularly balletic move on the court.
Last weekend I accompanied my girlfriend and my kids on a Martin Luther King Day march through the Central District to downtown. I took a lot of pictures using my iPhone 8 Plus. Looking back over the pictures, the one above stood out. The more I examined the photo, the more I saw that I happened to capture a unique compositional moment that I can’t take any credit for. I was literally just holding up the camera without any expectation about how the shot would turn out.
The photo is anchored by four figures, from the left: my son Miles, my daughter Scarlett, the unknown man reaching skyward, and my girlfriend Lisa, wearing the backpack. Usually shots taken of peoples’ backs aren’t as interesting, but Miles and Scarlett are caught turning toward one another, sharing a joke, his arm around hers in a telling gesture of brotherly protection. The man in the middle seems to be holding the photo itself up, like a tent pole, the tips of his fingers just inside the frame. Meanwhile, Lisa looks off at a diagonal, pulling the energy of the picture toward the center.
Looking deeper into the picture, the first thing I noticed was the trio of little girls riding on shoulders, holding each others’ hands. This echoes the gesture between Miles and Scarlett, like a triplet played on top of an eighth note. Miles is looking down toward Scarlett while the girl in the striped jacket is looking down toward the girl wearing black. It’s beautiful to see kids connecting and being compassionate with one another.
The guy raising his hand–who is he gesturing to? Whose attention is he trying to get? One possible answer is to look closely just past Miles’s left shoulder. A bearded man waves, his face glowing in the sun. That he appears somewhat Jesus-like adds something, particularly when you consider that he is framed by two signs–one reading “Stick with Love” and the other the peace sign directly above Miles’s head.
The signs do a lot of interesting work in this picture. To the right, there’s the perfectly positioned “Never Lose Hope” sign situated right next to the street sign for E Union. Beside these, two eyes stare out of a banner with a message about nuclear proliferation. These eyes direct energy toward the middle of the photo, just as Lisa does, and the effect is a feeling of momentum, of surging movement. Just to the left of the banner, you can see a partially obscured sign with the word “Yes!” in a bright yellow circle. On the other side of Lisa’s hat, there’s a No Parking sign. Yes/No. Never/Hope.
There happens to be a man standing in front of the banner wearing a hat, his head precisely where the nose on that face should be. On the other side of Lisa’s hat is another man’s bald head. This side of the photo seems to be about opposites, opposing forces combining to produce energy. Obscured and exposed.
Looking beyond the banner, one of the truly surprising treats of this photo appears. There’s a little guy standing on the roof of a building! He’s far away, but the camera was able to capture that he’s a white guy wearing a blue sweatshirt with a white logo, his arms crossed as he observes the throng below. When my eye caught this figure it also noticed the American and Washington State flags rising just above the “Never Lose Hope” sign, as if springing from the head of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr..
Once my attention was pulled into the distance I swept my eyes to the left, where I noticed another visual treat that echoes the man standing on the building. The building that takes up the left background is under construction, its exterior sheathed in scaffolding and a transluscent covering. And if you look closely, you can count six construction workers observing the scene, standing within a structure that resembles the multi-level stage set of Rent. There’s something resonant about these observers being passively framed in a box while the unruly crowd proceeds below.
Somehow, by happy accident, this photo came together in such a way that its structural and thematic elements work together. When I look at it, I see my kids loving each other, my girlfriend looking her beautiful self, expressions of both personal and universal unity and love, and distant observers taking it in. I even see my own shadow, my arm falling across the back of the unknown man’s legs. I’m both inside and outside of the picture, observing and taking part in a particular historical moment, marching forward.