03. Juxtaposition

Some images tell a story by comparing two of the visual elements. Consequently, when reading an image it is worthwhile considering whether the photographer has juxtaposed two or more of the elements in a way that would suggest they should be compared rather than combined to unlock the meaning of the image.

On this occasion, I chose to create the image in monochrome. This choice was driven as much by the fact that I didn’t have the money back then (1973) to shoot in colour as it was by any artistic consideration; but even if I had shot it in colour, I would have converted it to black and white for a couple of reasons: firstly, what little colour there was in the scene contributed nothing of significance to the story; and secondly, black and white adds a feeling of melancholy which does, I believe, contribute to the overall mood of the shot.

In terms of the visual elements, there is a man; a bench (on which the man is sitting); a bag (sitting on the bench beside the man, presumably owned by the man); a tree trunk immediately behind the bench; and two boys playing with a ball amongst some trees in the background.

They key to the meaning of this photograph is the tree trunk, which bisects this image into two halves: left and right.

In the left half, we have the man and his bag; and a closer inspection of them suggests that he is down on his luck (the torn cuffs of his trousers and the dishevelled appearance of the bag), possibly a homeless person (note the bottle sitting on the top of the bag). Admittedly, the evidence here is circumstantial; but this is not a documentary photograph where the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is sacrosanct, it is an image where the suggestion of a meaning is sufficient for its purpose.

On the right half of the image, there are two boys, in the distance, out of focus, playing with a ball. From their actions they seem exuberant, carefree – they seem to be having fun. It wasn’t by good luck or by chance that I captured them in this position. I had to wait for quite a few minutes for this – the image I wanted to tell the story that had formed in my mind; and all the while I was hoping that the man would maintain his position; that he wouldn’t look round and see me and perhaps chase me away.

In my imaginary story we have an older man, on the left, gazing into the distance at two boys playing on the right. These two elements are separated by the tree trunk.  We cannot know what the man is thinking but it’s plausible that he is remembering when he was the age that the boys are now. The fact that they are well out of focus suggests he is looking back in time; as does the fact that the tree trunk separates him from them, symbolising the passage of time (trees take a long time to grow to this size). He might even be imagining the two boys. Either way, he is motionless on his bench. His life has been shaped. They are exuberant in their play. Their life sill has flexibility; still has possibilities; hope for the future. And perhaps the man is wondering what happened to his life, to all his enthusiasm, to all his dreams of what he could become. Yes, that’s a lot of conjecture. And that is not the only way to interpret this scene. But that is what ran through my mind as I waited for the decisive moment – the moment I captured here.

The point I am trying to make is that the man without the boys, or the boys without the man in this photograph would not have yielded such a story; might not even have been worth photographing. The story is one of contrast and of time: time past and time still to come. And it is the juxtaposition of the two visual elements that creates the story.

The same location, almost 40 years later


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