On my way down to the River Walk, I had noticed a man who appeared homeless wandering around the city. I found myself feeling sorry for him, thinking I could help him get his life in order if I only had the courage to talk to him. I’ve always had a bit of a savior complex, but frankly it wasn’t in my nature to approach strangers in a city I knew almost nothing about. So instead of chasing after him, I chased after some pralines and stuffed my face as I fixed his life from a safe distance in my imagination.
As I walked back to my car and paused before a crosswalk, I was still lost in thought about the man without a name. I felt a responsibility to add something to his life, even though I had never met him. I told myself that if I ever came back to Savannah, I would make it my mission to find him and get him help. And that’s when I looked up and realized that he was standing right next to me, waiting to cross the street.
Despite the intense Savannah heat, he was dressed in a sweatshirt and long, baggy pants. He looked like he hadn’t cut his hair in years, nor bathed anytime in the last few months. As I stood there frozen, still feeling sorry for him and wondering how in the world we were crossing paths once again, his gentle eyes met mine and he nodded hello. My heart started beating quickly and with a moment to spare before the pedestrian light changed, I took a breath and nervously said:
“Hi, sir. I was wondering if…uh…are you hungry?”
I don’t know why I felt so scared. I just assumed he was probably high. Off with the fairies. Maybe he didn’t even understand I was standing in front of him. He could be dangerous. Or worse, he could be offended and dangerous. But instead, he smiled and a kind voice replied:
“Wow. Yeah, I am actually.”
I asked where he might like to eat. As he pondered his choices, I looked up and saw what almost seemed too good to be true: PANERA BREAD.
“Hey! Oh my God. There’s a Panera Bread! How about that??!”
“I think you’ll love it.”
“I’ve had their food before. I think they had a soup or something that I…”
“That’s PERFECT. Let’s go then! I really think you’d love it.”
I may, or may not, be an overly enthusiastic Panera Bread addict. And since I’m reasonably certain it fixes everything and I felt determined to fix this stranger’s life, Panera Bread was the obvious only choice. As we approached the entrance, he looked at me and reluctantly said, “Now, if you want you can just go in and get it. Or…well, I mean…”
“That’s ridiculous. Come in with me.”
He did. And as he took ample time searching the menu for the perfect lunch, I started to wonder how long it had been since he could look at a menu without looking at the prices. In fact, how long had it been since he had looked at a menu, period? He finally chose something and when the cashier asked a name for the order, he proudly gave his full name. Like, all three. It was kind of adorable. And that’s when I found out that his name was Jacob.
Jacob humbly thanked me for paying for his lunch. And then he said I could go, if I wanted…but that he’d really like to sit and talk. And right there, my heart broke. I had noticed the way people stared at him when he walked through the door. And yet out on the street, people had walked past him as if he didn’t exist. Somehow, I had been under the impression that buying him a meal would be a good deed, of sorts and in humiliating truth, make me feel better about myself. Maybe I would pat him on the back after buying him a slice of pizza and say, “Well, I hope you pull your life together. Good luck.” I mean, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking.
What this man needed was a friend.
As we waited for his food to be prepared, I told him that it would be an absolute honor to sit with him. And so I did. And as I felt the temptation to sit across from him and fix his life…I didn’t. Instead, I just listened. I listened to beautiful Jacob talk about his beautiful life. I listened to him tell me a story of how he had been brilliantly smart and for various reasons, dropped out of college several years before ending up in Savannah. He told me that he was an Aquarius. He told me about all the members of his family back in North Dakota. He told me that regardless of what society said, he didn’t label or see himself as a homeless person. He even told me with open honesty that he liked “indulging in recreational drugs”. And for once in my life, I decided to just be. I didn’t try to come up with, or offer a solution. I no longer needed to save him…
…because he was saving me.
You see, I had taken the trip to Disney to clear my head. When I first decided to start my photography business, I had no idea it would be so much work. I read somewhere that professional photographers focus 20% of their time on taking photos and 80% on business. Before arriving in FL, I had come to the conclusion that I was being lied to and it was closer to 10/90. I found it depressing and was thinking of giving the whole venture up. I thought that perhaps a relaxing Florida vacation would bring me some clarity before I ended up selling all of my camera gear, but instead it was happening at a Panera in Georgia.
Jacob didn’t need to be fixed. He was perfectly happy living the lifestyle he was accustomed to, despite the endless challenges I was projecting onto it. He was a gentle and loving human being that just needed, if anything, for somebody to be kind back to him and listen to him tell his story. And once I realized this, I knew I couldn’t give up photography.
For my whole life, stories have been so incredibly important to me. Being Gemini, I can create a story out of watching paint dry (I actually have a good one…remind me). And if I’m being told a story, I want more and more colorful details from the person telling it. I want to feel like I’m transported into their life, to see everything they saw and feel everything they felt. And while I’ve never done this deliberately, the most common feedback I’ve received over the years about my photographs is that they tell the most authentically real stories about the subject. I’ve never had to go out of my way to do this; I simply notice the beauty happening all around me.
As Jacob’s food arrived, I asked him something that scared me to death for some reason. “I’m a photographer. That’s why I stopped in Savannah, to take some pictures. And I was wondering if it might be ok if I photographed you while you ate? And possibly write about you sometime?”
Without looking at me, he nodded. And with that, I captured the experience on my camera so that I could always remember it…
…so that I could always remember why I must always keep making pictures.
While I’ve often believed the purpose of life is simply to live, I also feel that each one of us is instilled with a special gift to give back into the world. I am not really a photographer. I am a story-teller who takes photographs of people’s stories. It is my responsibility while I walk this planet to preserve the stories of those I come in contact with because once the people are gone, their stories still deserve to live on. For their families. For their friends. Or for anybody that felt touched in some way by their life.
On this particular sunny day in Savannah, Georgia I was touched by sitting across from a human named Jacob as he ate. I sat down determined to teach him something and instead, I was taught. I was taught to accept people for who they are, right now. I was taught just how dangerous it can be to project assumptions onto people without learning about them. And I was taught that when you have a true calling in life, the most responsible thing you can do is to do it.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” ~Howard Thurman
Thank you for making me come alive, Jacob.