It was fairly early in my growth as a photographer that I became aware that the impression a viewer has when looking at a photograph has little to do with what was actually going on when I released the shutter. Case in point: I was walking toward the dining hall at my high school when I saw one of my friends sitting on the concrete foundation. She saw I had my camera and playfully starting mugging. As soon as I raised the camera to my eye, however, she put her face in her hands. I remember her laughing as she did it. I snapped the frame you see above and continued on my way to lunch.
Later, after I had developed the film and made a print, I was surprised at how many people assumed that I had callously taken a photograph of a girl in tears. (As I said, she was laughing.) Her pants were dirty so she must be poor. (She was a student at a private boarding school. White pants get dirty quick in the red dust of Sedona.) She was wearing huarache sandals so she must be Mexican. (She bought the sandals in Mexico but that was the extent of it.) Because I shot in black and white the scene looks gritty, but in fact it was an overcast day, the gravel and dirt were the color of rust and her blouse was purple.
But so what? I've never pretended to present my work as photojournalism. Whatever was going on when I took the picture has to take a back seat to what people see when they look at the resulting photograph. The photograph takes on a life and meaning of its own. If we're lucky, viewers may infer a meaning much more profound than the 1/250-second event that was at its source--and if they do, here's a word of advice: Just nod, give them an enigmatic smile and say, "You know, you could be right."