Legs, Wings and Tails

There’s a Soviet cartoon that tells the story of an ostrich and a vulture, who are on a quest to find food in the desert. The vulture claiming that she knows where the food is, offers the ostrich to “fly there” quickly. As the former takes off the ostrich obviously starts following him by land. Astonished and dissatisfied the vulture stops and turns to the ostrich: “I said ‘let’s fly’, not ‘let’s run!’” The ostrich just lifts his rudimentary wings as an excuse. Insisting that all birds should know how to fly and it’s better “to lose one day but then to fly to the place in five minutes” the vulture starts training the ostrich to fly. But eventually the ostrich, trying to take off, overruns the flying vulture, leaving her way behind. Realizing that her legs are much faster than any wings, she turns to the exhausted vulture and says: “Wings… It’s the legs that matters!” The cartoon finishes with the lizard sitting nearby and watching the scene. After all she saw, the lizard concludes: “Wings… Legs… After all it’s only the tail that matters!”

The reason I recalled this little cartoon was the following photo I took a few months ago in Istanbul:

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The day I took this picture, I was going to an interview and took Istanbul Metro. When I got off the train at Yenibosna station, I immediately noticed this musician. He sat there and played the bağlama (sometimes referred to as saz), among all this subway rattle. I generally love taking pictures of musicians, and take any opportunity to photograph them. So, no wonder he caught my attention as soon as I spotted him playing. But even before I spotted his instrument a crutch that lay at his feet grabbed my attention. My brain immediately started working in a familiar direction: a crutch –> an impaired man –> an impaired old man –> an impaired old man playing a traditional instrument in a subway station for money. Finally, the image was ready: a poor old musician who struggles to move, plays in a metro station to make ends meet. Details I needed to include were: 1) the crutch, 2) the instrument, 3) two symmetric escalators that would both create a perspective and show a flow of crowd around the musician. As if he’s in his own world, while the city fusses about around him.

I didn’t know how he would react to me taking pictures of him, so I just went to him, crouched and clicked as he played. He was looking down, not noticing me. I tried to stick to my initial idea – the crutch, however the frame was too messy and bland to my taste. After a minute or so, he made a pause and looked at me. Like in most such situations, when I don’t speak the language or when there’s no need to talk, I smiled at him as if to explain why I’m here. His face made me understand he didn’t mind, yet he didn’t smile back, just picked his instrument again and continued playing. He played very well, and it confirmed my initial thought that he might be a music teacher.

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I continued to look for the right frame. Giving up to do something worthwhile with the crutch I raised the camera a little and made some shots.  The bağlama player was still looking down, which wasn’t any good for the picture. Suddenly, he looked up and gazed straight into the camera as if giving me the chance to take a snapshot portrait of him. I continued clicking the shutter. After a few seconds of the posing, his facial expression changed as if he got absorbed into his music. His chin rose a little bit higher and for a couple of seconds he shut his eyes and smiled. As he smiled, I managed to take a couple of photos of him before the camera’s buffer overflowed (Canon 5D has rather limited capabilities when it comes to continuous shooting). Waiting for the camera to write the images to the memory card, I thought of myself as lucky that he at least rose his head once. I made a couple more pictures, put a lira to his bag, told him “teşekkür ederim” (“thank you”) and continued my way to the meeting.

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Back in the hotel, I looked at the photos of the musician and my expectations came true: the photo where he was smiling was more eloquent over others. The crutches didn’t matter anymore. In fact, they looked quite redundant in comparison to his face. The story I saw was: a professional musician, maybe a music teacher, maybe both, recently tried to play in the subway just for fun. He discovered that it makes him happy to play for the busy and rushing audience. Maybe I was wrong and the reality was much gloomier, but in fact I might have also been wrong with the crutches. What this short photo session has taught me, was to pay more attention to human faces and micro expressions on them. Popular in modern photographic world, crutches, wheelchairs, amputated arms/legs or other visual attributes don’t matter as much as human facial expressions and body language. It is this perfect pair that tells, sometimes even within one split second, a human story. In fact, it doesn’t matter whether I correctly depicted the subway musician’s real life, rather that I tried to tell how I saw him. Because at the end of the day, it’s only us who decide whether it is the wings, the legs or the tails that matter.

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