Photographs: The Silent
March 25th, 2008. 3:45 pm
“This should work for your assignment for this week.” Nigel sets down the photograph and looks across the desk at his student. The 17-year-old slouches and fidgets. His fingers tangle in a set of headphones. “Where did you find the model?”
“I mean…” Nathan hesitates. “I just had my camera out when she flattened some guy on Main street.”
Nigel’s lips purse. “Did you get permission to keep the photo? We have a policy.”
“I asked her… After.” Nathan plays with his headphones again. “She said it was fine.”
“As long as you’ve got permission.” Nathan collects his folder and gets up to leave. He hesitates.
“Is it a good photo?”
Nigel hums. “I’d say for this assignment, it’s good. But ‘good’ is subjective. Your intention is what matters. What do you want the picture to mean? What do you want it to say?” Nathan’s at a loss.
“I don’t really know. I’m not good at that sort of thing.”
“Look at some photojournalists,” Nigel says. “I think you’ll start to understand what I mean. The photographer is just as much an actor in the photo as the subject. How you see it, is how you must present it.”
March 25, 2008. 4:15 pm
Nathan drops the portfolio off at his desk, with the camera, and wanders into the kitchen with the pizza box he grabbed on the way home. His dad’s laid out on the couch; three scripts sit on the coffee table covered in his looped writing. Nathan rolls his eyes. His dad looks tired even while he’s sleeping. His scrunched face, red nose, and sock feet stick out from under a Hello Kitty blanket neither of them remembers purchasing.
“Dad,” Nathan says and kicks the couch. “Get up, it’s time for dinner.”
His dad jolts before groaning and sitting up. He looks at his second son standing in the kitchen holding a pizza box, and shifts again, slow and soft, a pen over paper. Nathan pulls down plates and pops open the box; a symphony of clicks and whirls punctuated by pauses.
They eat in silence, ignoring the obvious questions about their days. Nathan never knows what to say, and his dad is only good at fixing other people’s words. He leaves once the supreme pizza is half gone and the rest of the pizza is cold.
“Homework,” is his only offering to the quiet vacuum of their living room. His dad nods, too busy studying the grease-stained cardboard while he thinks of more words someone else will say. It’s been this quiet since Isaac left for Columbia. He’s going to be a lawyer… his mouth filled with more words than Nathan and their father will ever say.
Nathan’s first stop is his desk where the camera holds his random thoughts and whispers of potential. He’d been thinking of a photojournalism degree in a few years. Under it is a signed form stating that the photographed individual consents to allow Nathan to use the photo for school. Sophie Borough’s signature sits on the dotted line in glittery, blue ink.
He follows the short juts of the name, fast and relentless, pressed into the paper, the same way her fist had looked as it hit her victim high on his cheekbone. In between the cussing and screeches that had followed, she turned and flipped off the man, a caustic smile on her face. The shutter closed. Nathan didn’t remember pressing the button.
Just like that, he’d captured the moment, the movement, and an emotion he can’t identify. Maybe he hasn’t been alive long enough to feel it. He’s not sure what the picture says though.
There’s no need for speech. Nathan likes that about photos. He doesn’t have to think about what he says and make sure it’s nice enough, soft enough, false enough, or polite enough. It’s just an image, a moment in time captured and laid bare. Pictures are a thousand unspoken words and ideas, all of them felt instead of heard. He thinks of Sophie flipping the bird at her victim. The tight curl of her fingers is a language all on its own. A story written in two seconds and caught in less than that.
He lays down on his bed and studies a crack in the ceiling. It spiderwebs from one corner of the room and makes a path for hundreds of little lines to follow like an absurd sidewalk. His head tilts up and Nathan looks at the camera. Without thinking, he pulls himself up and takes a picture. Through the lens, the crack becomes that sidewalk or a tree. Roots spread, bending and twisting, growing and breaking. There’s speech and silence in his hands, a hundred words and nothing at all. It doesn’t say anything.
March 25, 2020. 5:30 AM
Nathan sits in the mess of his bedsheets. His boyfriend, Eric, is asleep, their cat nesting in his hair. It’s too early for ‘good mornings.’ The quiet is too thick to disrupt. Nathan wants to pop it like a balloon that’s too full of air. He settles for making coffee.
It’s the smell of coffee that wakes up Eric. The sound of it brewing doesn’t reach him without his hearing aids. As Nathan waits for the coffee to finish, he plays with his camera, getting ready for a morning of shoots filled with models and make-up. He’ll have lunch with his brother and dinner with Eric. Between those, he’ll teach a first-year photography class at his alma mater. Before all that, Eric walks in wearing a bulky sweater and carrying their cat. He sets her down and signs to Nathan. Nathan signs back, asking a question and raising the camera once he gets a nod.
The photo is simple, Eric backlit by their kitchen window, soft and serene. It’s a sleepy smile that reeks of indulgence and not enough caffeine. It’s messy brown hair that’s been needing a trim for a month. It’s imperfect and beautiful. Nathan tucks it away in the part of his mind where he stored the photos of Sophie Borough and the cracks over his bed. It’s nothing and everything, an ‘I love you’ without words… so loud he wants to cover his ears.
Photo by Giorgio Trovato on Unsplash