A diamond in the abyss

I teach that you need to be a personable conversationalist to be a great photojournalist. You need to be a outgoing, tactful and creative to break the ice with subjects or approach complete strangers. I just completed a grueling photography task I do each year where I photograph dozens of subjects in one day, often finding strangers to be my subjects.

This is easy if you are at an event – such as an art show, park or fair – but the task is photography for the annual Parker County Texas Visitors Guide. I must get interesting photographs – preferably human – from 16 towns big and tiny and I do the task in one day. I have been doing this assignment for about 10 years and it is grueling but satisfying.

Doing the job in one day is essential because I need to drive the entire county and I don't want to take days going out and back. To make things harder, doing it in one day means I cannot schedule to be at popular public events or make arrangements to meet people at particular times.

The bigger towns have senior centers, parks and farmers’ markets to find subjects doing interesting things while the small towns have almost nothing. It is the smallest towns that I try to pre-arrange with the schools, which sometimes does not work or can fail even after making arrangements. As I said, this is a tough assignment.

I was dreading the tiny town of Peaster because it is a bleak pinpoint on the map and a woman at the school district was snooty on the phone and would not let me photograph students this year, so when I arrived I took a picture of the post office, the only public building in town other than the one church (which I photographed two years earlier). Google Street View Peaster, Texas and see how screwed I was.

I drove around the town’s few homes and saw a woman in her shaded back yard; hair pulled back, head down and intently painting something on a table. I was thinking “Please, oh please, oh please” as I walked up to her wood gate, introduced myself and explained what I was doing. I asked if I may photograph her while she painted. “No, I don’t take good pictures,” artist Ariel Menchaca, said. I enthusiastically countered with my favorite comeback, “Well, I take great pictures, so that evens things out!” She laughed, and….Jackpot! Not only did she agree to be photographed, she was doing something of interest. She was paining folk art on mirror frames for a taqueria her family was opening in a building on the main road, which would be the town’s only business. For those not familiar with Texas, a taqueria is small Mexican cafĂ©, often with simply a walk-up window, specializing in yummy authentic soft tacos.

It took imagination, inspiration and a little bravery to get this good picture in a tough situation. It was my best photo of the job. I drove to my next stop singing “Everything is Coming Our Way” by Santana.

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