JULY 29, 2013
My father and I didn’t get along. That’s putting it mildly. We were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, so when our views clashed, he was quick to point out that I “didn’t know anything.” If he came home from work in a bad mood or became angry with me or my siblings, he could become violent. If we couldn’t run fast enough to get away, he’d take out his frustrations on us at the end of a leather belt. But, oddly enough, the thing about him that really drove me crazy was his habit of striking up conversations with complete strangers when we were out in public.
I was mortified by what I felt was his “nosiness.” I would tell him that “it wasn’t any of his business,” and that he should “leave people alone.” I thought about this today as I found myself striking up a conversation, not for the first time, with a stranger as I was doing my monthly beach survey for SEANET, a citizen science project to collect data from East Coast beaches about dead birds that wash up on shore.
My assigned section of waterfront extends north from Old Orchard Beach into Pine Point Beach in Scarborough, ME. This long, sandy stretch of beach is popular with local residents all year long, but it gets packed during the summer with the addition of vacationers. Among all the people I passed wading in the waves, building sand castles, and dozing in beach chairs, one person caught my eye. He looked like a picture post card from Atlantic City in the 1920s. He had a robust, bushy beard and was sporting a boater hat and a striped t-shirt, reminiscent of those old-time woolen bathing suits. Was he an actor readying himself for a role? Was he participating in a beard-growing contest? Was he Amish? Was it any of my business? No, but having spent 20 years working as a news photographer, I was going to find out.
I learned that Andy Chase and his wife live on a farm in central Massachusetts, but that his family has been coming for decades to spend part of their summer at Pine Point. They’re both artists. His wife is an illustrator, and Andy works with fabric. He makes, totally apropos of someone who looks like a man from an earlier era, bowties. Samples of some of his work can be found on the website for Splendid Toad Art Farm. The ties are pretty cool-looking. We chatted for a few moments, and then I snapped a photo of him with the “point & shoot” camera that I carry with me to record survey data from the beach. I could have enjoyed my time by the ocean without pausing to talk to this man, but the walk was made memorable because I did stop. Just to be “nosey.”
I believe those curious instincts that goaded my father to talk to anyone out of the blue have been imprinted on me, despite the years in my youth I was humiliated by them. And what I learned later from my career in photojournalism is this. First, that if you approach people the right way, you find that many, if not most of them, enjoy the chance to talk about themselves. Second, that you might find that you have things in common that you wouldn’t have guessed off the bat. Third, that you might actually learn something interesting or useful by talking to a stranger. Fourth, that we spend way too much time walling ourselves off and being afraid of strangers. Those instincts were honed into skills by my photojournalism instructor, Joe Lippincott, who would make us students go back and ask more questions if we turned in photos with insufficient caption information.
It has been my career in photography that has shown me how multi-dimensional people are – that they’re not all good or all bad, and that you can learn a lot, even from people you don’t get along with. That’s a lesson I could have learned from my dad a long time ago.