What a Difference a Second Makes

Photo Credit - Scot Naraki

Photo Credit - Scot Naraki

Can you hear it?  Dinah Washington's inimitable crisp voice, "What a diff'rence a day makes, twenty-four little hours." The song is pretty self-explanatory, but what's the application here?  Well, this past Saturday was the first photography workshop that I've led.  It was street photography in particular.  It was a fun, and stressful at times, but definitely a learning experience as I move forward in the photo biz.  I was especially thrilled with the student portfolio so check it out if you feel like it.  Anyhow, I joined the class and did some shooting too.

I say all this by way of introduction:  Introduction to an idea we spoke of in the theory and discussion portion of the class.  Namely, Bresson's The Decisive Moment

To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event as well as of a precise organization of forms which give that event its proper expression.
— Henri Cartier-Bresson

Now, I wish I could say that the images that we will be looking at were as well thought out as Bresson's quote would indicate, but no, this was not the case.  The overall game plan was there, but my mind was most intent on capturing expression. Here's how I see theelements of Bresson's notion in this encounter.

  • Recognition of event: Specifically, a face that carried with it stories.  Not only that, but a face that was generous with his time and wisdom, willing to talk to a stranger...which is nothing other than a potential friend.
  • Recognition of forms: To be further discussed below, but in general, the angles by which my camera's line of view met the gentleman's countenance.  This, of course, to emphasize and convey various moods.
  • Fractions of seconds: The images below were taken in close chronology.  Should I have shared all the images I took you would see something more like a filmstrip, more continuity.  The point being, there are real differences from moment to moment, and even if subtle realities, they can alter the perception quite a bit.  Excursus: By the way, if I'm right about the previous sentiment, then perception does not equal reality.

Let's take a look at the images, and what a difference a second makes (or at least a few seconds).  Please note that they are shown in chronological order, and more importantly, the man's name is Johnny.

Moment One: Here, taken from below and with his hands raised as they are, to me, conveys a sense of urgency.  The lower perspective may carry with it unconscious memories of being a kid and feeling like whatever the adults are talking about is above my pay grade.  Plus, the blur can make one feel, literally, like there's a lack of clarity about the scene.  The hands are almost indicating a plea.  What might he be saying? "Please!" or "Why?!"  That's for me to know and you to imagine.

Moment One: Here, taken from below and with his hands raised as they are, to me, conveys a sense of urgency.  The lower perspective may carry with it unconscious memories of being a kid and feeling like whatever the adults are talking about is above my pay grade.  Plus, the blur can make one feel, literally, like there's a lack of clarity about the scene.  The hands are almost indicating a plea.  What might he be saying? "Please!" or "Why?!"  That's for me to know and you to imagine.


Moment Two: Here, hands lowered but still open, Johnny, here, seems a bit needy.  His eyes too, big and dark, seem to be slightly sad.  Maybe he was.  Maybe he wasn't.  Can you tell?

Moment Two: Here, hands lowered but still open, Johnny, here, seems a bit needy.  His eyes too, big and dark, seem to be slightly sad.  Maybe he was.  Maybe he wasn't.  Can you tell?


Moment Three: Okay, so there's no action.  This static appearance is further buttressed by the fact that I am at eye-level with him.  He's sitting down, to boot!  Plus his smile removes any dark emotion that the previous moments might have carried with them.  Clearly there's no Decisive Moment here, especially given that we are posed.  But still, it's a distinct moment, a different one, and thus, a different mood.

Moment Three: Okay, so there's no action.  This static appearance is further buttressed by the fact that I am at eye-level with him.  He's sitting down, to boot!  Plus his smile removes any dark emotion that the previous moments might have carried with them.  Clearly there's no Decisive Moment here, especially given that we are posed.  But still, it's a distinct moment, a different one, and thus, a different mood.


Moment Four: It's not hard to imagine the real-life story unfolding, like a filmstrip, between moments three and four.  I simply asked Johnny to look at the camera more seriously.  He graciously did so.  But more to the point is that, had I not spoken of the story as I know it, and had you not seen the previous image, how would you read this portrait?  Would it be different than you see it now?  Hmmmm...

Moment Four: It's not hard to imagine the real-life story unfolding, like a filmstrip, between moments three and four.  I simply asked Johnny to look at the camera more seriously.  He graciously did so.  But more to the point is that, had I not spoken of the story as I know it, and had you not seen the previous image, how would you read this portrait?  Would it be different than you see it now?  Hmmmm...


Moment Five: Action, Rest, and now back at it again.  Johnny decided to get back up, and clearly he was passionate about what was on his mind.  What he was speaking of was of interest to me but it's not important for our purposes.  Rather, what now do you see with the added emotion of the subject.  To me he looks down-right angry.  Maybe he's yelling at me for taking a photograph?  Regardless, contrast this moment to moment three.

Moment Five: Action, Rest, and now back at it again.  Johnny decided to get back up, and clearly he was passionate about what was on his mind.  What he was speaking of was of interest to me but it's not important for our purposes.  Rather, what now do you see with the added emotion of the subject.  To me he looks down-right angry.  Maybe he's yelling at me for taking a photograph?  Regardless, contrast this moment to moment three.


Moment Six: After so many moments a man is bound to get tired.  You've been there I'm sure.  Who can't but doze off when you get exhausted talking with strangers?  I fault him in no way.  Perhaps more than any other image this one carries with it the feeling that he may be homeless...who else sleeps in public?  But none of this is really the case.  The ambiguity of a moment comes from, in part, the fact that the surrounding moments are unknown.  Johnny, like us, blinks.  My camera saw fit to go "click" right then.

Moment Six: After so many moments a man is bound to get tired.  You've been there I'm sure.  Who can't but doze off when you get exhausted talking with strangers?  I fault him in no way.  Perhaps more than any other image this one carries with it the feeling that he may be homeless...who else sleeps in public?  But none of this is really the case.  The ambiguity of a moment comes from, in part, the fact that the surrounding moments are unknown.  Johnny, like us, blinks.  My camera saw fit to go "click" right then.


Moment Seven: The luminous light at the end of the tunnel, his contemplative and peaceful look, and even his jacket over his shoulder like a philosopher's tunic.  Is that a book or a phone?  What's the difference nowadays anyhow?  Here, Johnny strikes us as a prophet of South Central...What's the good word, Sir?

Moment Seven: The luminous light at the end of the tunnel, his contemplative and peaceful look, and even his jacket over his shoulder like a philosopher's tunic.  Is that a book or a phone?  What's the difference nowadays anyhow?  Here, Johnny strikes us as a prophet of South Central...What's the good word, Sir?


Moment Eight: The same scene, a slightly distinct angle, an entirely different moment.  Commuter.  Not the slightest connotation of disorder, poverty, homelessness, or unhappiness.  Here, more than any other, Johnny appears to be the medical expert he is.  A kind soul from Sierra Leone waiting for the bus.  Sharing with a stranger, pictures of his three adult children, one of which recently graduated from the University of San Diego.  More than any other moment, we can conceive of this man being a world traveler, cultured and erudite.

Moment Eight: The same scene, a slightly distinct angle, an entirely different moment.  Commuter.  Not the slightest connotation of disorder, poverty, homelessness, or unhappiness.  Here, more than any other, Johnny appears to be the medical expert he is.  A kind soul from Sierra Leone waiting for the bus.  Sharing with a stranger, pictures of his three adult children, one of which recently graduated from the University of San Diego.  More than any other moment, we can conceive of this man being a world traveler, cultured and erudite.

...and more importantly, the man’s name is Johnny.

  Thanks, Johnny, for sharing a few seconds with me.  They made a difference!