It was a Saturday afternoon in July of 2020 when I met a group of men sitting at some picnic tables at a sports field next to King Elementary School in north Portland. Covid was raging, and so were political protests, which was the reason I came to this area in the first place. The protest turned out to be rather mellow, so I approached the men instead. There were five of them, three unmasked, drinking, smoking, and talking. When I asked to take their photo, they agreed and were enthusiastic subjects. I took over fifty images and I asked them if they would be there the following day. The reply was, “you’ll find some of us here every day.” I told them that I would return with pictures the next day and there was a quiet “yeah, sure” in response.
I came back the next day and, much to their surprise, I returned almost every day through the summer of 2021. I discovered a community of individuals there of all ages, including some adults in their 70s who grew up near the school. The King community is home to them, and the park they meet at, next to the school, is a sort of community center. Sometimes they eat and drink or smoke; what is constant though, is conversation. These individuals welcomed me into their lives, and it became my privilege to take their photos almost daily.
That fortunate meeting in July was the catalyst for a photo series about this tight knit group of people who refuse to be removed from their neighborhood in Portland, despite the intense gentrification it’s undergoing. However, that wasn’t the only project born from my time spent in the King community. It was the start of a series called “Conversations” too, which includes pictures from the King Community Project as well as other street photographs of people engaged in public conversations. Images were made on the streets of Portland, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, San Juan, Coney Island, and Charleston.
I’ve been photographing on the streets for over fifty years, but this series is different for me. Most of my work has been street portraits where I ask permission to photograph an individual. The photographs in this series, on the other hand, are candid and emphasize both expressions and gestures; representative of individuals’ day-in-day-out lives interacting with friends, strangers, neighbors—people speaking with each other in public places. The series adds a different dimension because the people are unaware of my presence. No one is posing but rather they are speaking with each other as part of their daily lives. In this series, I am the witness of daily interaction and it is for the viewer of the images to create the story that they see.
It’s no surprise really, that the impetus for the change came while working on the King Community Project. From the first day in 2020, I returned with pictures for the individuals in the park. At that time, most of the photographs I made were either portraits or group photographs. My camera was always evident, and I always asked for permission. But after about six months, the core group there began to consider me a friend, a part of the park, and I began making more candid images. Many of the new pictures were of people talking with one another. Connected with portraits, that series has become much richer. It has also spurred me to look for people speaking with each other on the streets.
Making street pictures like those in this series has also made me even more aware of what’s happening around me. My vision is more horizontal and I’m also more patient—willing to wait longer to see what develops. I’ve identified certain neighborhoods, parks, corners where people are likely to meet. I’m shooting mostly with a Leica Q2 and I’m able to get close in without people reacting to me or my camera. Generally, I am five to twelve feet away from the people I photograph. And this type of shooting is exciting because it broadens me as a photographer. Of course, I still make street portraits, but as noted at the outset, making pictures of people having conversations adds a new and realistic dimension to my work.