When I travel, I prefer to take photos of people I randomly encounter, rather than of sites I visit. I have photographed my share of monuments and parks and churches and bridges, and I imagine I always will, but they serve mostly to remind me that I have visited a place, jarring something in my memory about a particular time in my life.
The truth is that my photos of architectural and geographical graces of any particular city can’t begin to compare with those taken by the many skilled landscape and architectural photographers whose work I admire.
So I opt instead for wandering places I visit hoping that if I come upon something interesting my reflexes will be quick enough to capture the moment with a respectable degree of positive energy.
It’s the difference between going into a dance studio and improvising for an hour, as opposed to practicing a piece of choreography until it’s perfect. Between planning a gourmet menu for friends, and scratch cooking on a Sunday evening and inviting people in for an impromptu dinner.
The difference between setting up a camera and waiting for the light, the weather, the shadows and sounds to cooperate magically, and taking a picture without planning it, knowing full well I might end up with…nothing.
Such was the day in Siena, Italy many years ago, when I wandered past the always crowded Piazza del Campo and up Via di Città to explore the outskirts of the city, and saw two young women sitting on the steps to the backdoor of the restaurant they worked in, laughing and chatting with such enthusiasm and affection that I had to ask if I could take their picture.
I remember not wanting to interrupt them, and wondering if I should just take the brazen chance of photographing them without asking permission. But I knew it would change the moment, that they would cease being themselves in some way. The street was so crowded with people and I would have to stand very close to them in order to get a clear photograph.
But they were so beautiful, so alive and vibrant that I thought ‘Well, maybe they will like having their picture taken…’ and I asked them and in that instant of their agreement, I got lucky.
I most love the contrast between these two young women, one with her tennis shoes and simplicity, her friend bejeweled with chandelier earrings, perfectly outlined lips, manicured fingers, and painted toes peaking through lacy black mules.
The way they huddled so close, their bodies touching, one smiling openly, the other more sedate, one whose body was more contained, the other whose physicality was more outstretched, the gentleness of their hand, their bright faces beckoning, the ease of them…’Yes, please, take our picture.’
The ancient city of Siena will always be there, and should I return again, I will wander past the steps of that restaurant and all I will have is my photograph.
These young women don’t remember me.
But I will always remember them…and wonder where they are now, what they are doing, and if they are as happy as they seemed to me on that day so long ago during my Summer in Siena.
NOTE: I first published this essay about taking a photograph of these two beautiful young women in Siena, Italy on November 27, 2016 on my Portraits of Strangers blog on Google+. It remains one of my favorite photographs from my travels.