ANIMAL’s original series asks photographers about that one shot that got away. This week, Chris Arnade talks about a beached Russian that just said “no.”
I am usually successful at getting the groups of people I am interested in to pose for me. Often it takes a lot of time, but even at the beginning there is some glimmer of hope, a feeling that I could become something more than an intruder. The notable exception for me has been the Russians of Brighton Beach. I have gotten a few pictures, but I never feel an opening, that sense of connection between myself and subject that is so important.
About three years ago I decided to bring my camera along when I took my youngest daughter to Coney Island. I figured after spending a few hours on the rides we would walk back via Brighton Beach and hopefully I could get a few pictures, talk to a few folks. In particular I wanted to photograph some of the older residents sunbathing on the beach. I wanted the juxtaposition between the casual present and the very harrowing stories of how they came to New York. I hoped having a nine-year-old girl would put some folks at ease.
I quickly got turned down by three groups in a row. One gentleman in particular haunts me. He was barrel-chested, in a black swimsuit far too small and dark for him, and had a striking facial resemblance to Brezhnev. He also had a small vest, open at the front, that was filled with Russian war medals. The perfect model; the story of his past was right there on him! We spoke. He was friendly enough, telling me about his various exploits, but was firm about not having his picture taken.
I gave up. My daughter and I bought two mangos on sticks and sat on the beach to relax. About fifteen minutes later I see a cute youngish girl coming down the beach with an old medium-format film camera, taking pictures of all the old Russian sun bathers. She eventually got to us and I approached her. We spoke and exchanged stories for about five minutes. She was from France (and did not speak Russian), and had only been turned down by two or three groups. I asked her how she did it. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Not sure.”
I did take a picture of her, and she took a nice picture of me and my daughter. Looking back at these pictures I see why she was so successful and why I wasn’t. So much more relaxed on the beach than I am!
Yet I still think of Brezhnev in a tiny swimsuit, stoic, barrel chested, with all them war metals. Damn, sometimes its better to be a petite French woman than a tall white guy.