I started taking photos of strange men in the streets of Chicago over four years ago. It wasn't my idea-- it was theirs.

"Hey honey, you gonna take my picture?"


It happens any time I step outside with a camera around my neck. It's a tired reality for most women in an urban environment, but the camera somehow amplifies the attention-- by being a woman doing a thing in a public space, I invite commentary not only on my activity but on how I look when I'm doing it. My rule has always been: don't engage. It's not worth it.


And then one day, one man too many sidled up and asked what the pretty lady was doing behind the camera instead of in front of it and didn't I want to take his picture too, and something snapped.

"Sure," I replied. "I'd love to."

As a rule, they had to be the one to initiate. If the question was implied but not clearly stated, I would clarify.

“Are you asking me to take your picture?”


Most of them were surprised. I started smiling and shaking hands and meeting their eyes. I showed them their photographs and wished them the best. If at any point I felt threatened, I'd excuse myself and walk away. It was easier than I'd expected to be polite. By saying yes, I'd interrupted the familiar narrative and stolen back a piece of control. I started talking more while I set up the frame, asking questions and answering any in turn. I began taking notes-- on what exactly men were saying to me and how it was they were saying it. What you hear when a man's talking to you because he's feeling confident and what it sounds like when he's feeling lonely. The difference between misguided and misogyny.

In the moments with the men below, I did my best to tell their stories with as little editorializing as I know how. Some of them generally follow the script outlined above-- others were curious onlookers or friendly passersby. As a rule, I've represented the entire range of these interactions, without concern for whatever I interpreted their motives to be-- if I was approached in a public space by someone who specifically solicited me to take their photo, they have been included here. If anyone expressed a wish that I keep their picture private, or if I believed any other ethical considerations to be at play (mental illness or situational biases), their photo has not been shared.


It does not feel productive for me to use these portraits to offer sweeping condemnation or judgment. Neither do I mean to excuse a particular brand of behavior, or to promote my approach as any kind of solution. My best attempt, then, is just to share the moments I've experienced as a young, professional woman in a public space. These are the men I met along the way.

Click a photo to view with the full caption.

    He didn't care about seeing his picture and never told me his name. He did ask me mine, and when I told him he grinned.
        “Hillary? Like Hillary Clinton?” 
    “You bet!” I told him, and he gave me a high five. 
    He wanted his tattoo to be featured prominently, or, as he put it, “Take the picture of me and my dad.” 

He was crossing the street and told me to take his picture. 
    “Maybe once you get out of the road."
    He made it to the sidewalk and I asked if he lived nearby.
    “In that park over there. Buy me some Chinese food and you can keep taking my picture.” 
    I did. We were eating fried rice and he told me to get him some more water. “Please,” I corrected, and he made a face. 
“I bet you're this mean to your boyfriend, too,” he complained. 
    “Damn straight,” I told him.

    “Over here, sweetheart.” The guy in the tank top waved me over. I had just been putting my gear away, but I obligingly turned the camera back on as he gathered his friends.
    “The cover's still on,” he told me as I took the lens cap off. I snapped the picture, and then a couple more as he insisted on trying new poses. I was turning to leave when a girl behind me grabbed my arm. 
    “You have the patience of a saint,” she said, and she and her friend nodded sympathetically at me.  

    He was a classical musician who confided in me that he cries sometimes at Rothko paintings. In a thick French accent, he told me in great detail about the years it took him to discover that he is neither a photographer nor a painter. He insisted on getting my number in order to text me his e-mail address. 
    “And when you e-mail me,” he continued, “I'll e-mail you something back. It changed my life. I promise,” he said, touching my shoulder. “It will change your soul.” 

The young guy in the letter jacket stopped me first. The other two were clearly interested in being in the photo, and as I framed them up they unzipped their hoodies. 
 “Gotta show some solidarity,” the guy in the middle said. 
 “Oh yeah? You guys work together?”
 “At the KFC down the street,” he told me. 
 They waited just long enough for me to take one photo, turned back around, and kept walking.

He saw me taking someone else's photo and pulled up to the curb. He waited until I finished and honked lightly. 
“Your photo too?” I asked and he nodded.
“Speak Spanish?” he asked after I'd taken a couple shots.
“Not really, lo siento,” I said and he sighed and turned onto the road.

     He was peddling postcards to tourists just outside the Willis Tower entrance. “They're for the homeless,” he told each family.
    I gave him some dimes from the bottom of my purse and he shook my hand. 
    “That's bullshit, dude.” A man who'd asked for money ten minutes earlier crossed the street to guilt me. “You give him that, he's gonna spend it right on drugs.” 
    “Sorry.” I muttered, tucking the postcard away. 
    “Bullshit,” the man spat again. “He does this every day. Bullshit."

    I crossed the street in front of them and had just made it to the other side when the driver honked and called out at me. 
    “Take our picture!”
    There was ten seconds left on the crosswalk, so I walked back into the middle of the street and took a quick photo. 
    “There you go,” I said, and made it back to the sidewalk just before the light changed and they sped off. 

 

    The man in the middle told me that the man at the end wanted his picture taken.
    “Sounds like maybe you both want your picture taken?” I suggested.
    “Well, okay,” the man in the middle conceded and scooted his chair over. 
    The man in front had been standing behind me on the sidewalk.
    “What's happening?” he asked. “What's happening here?”
    “Taking their photo,” I told him, and he hopped the fence and sat down in front. 

    He was crossing the street with a buddy and carrying a case of Miller Lite. When he stopped me I asked what they were up to.
    “Grilling.”
    I agreed to take the picture, and he handed the beer to his friend to stand out of frame with.
    “Are you sure you don't want one with both of you and the beer together?” I joked, waiting for two men on bicycles to pass. “I think that would be a nice photo.” 
    “No,” he said without smiling. “I don't think so.”

    I was setting up another shot and he danced into the frame. He wanted to see everything I took and shook my hand when I showed him his photos. 
    “Bless you, from me, my daughter, and my granddaughter,” he told me. “You have a wonderful life. God be with you forever.”
    “Thanks,” I said. “You too.”
    “You enjoy waiting for the bus now,” he said, and danced away again.

    I thought at first he was asking me not to take photos on his bus.
    “Don't worry, it's off,” I told him and made to put my camera away.
    “Nah,” he said. “I'll be in your photo shoot.” 
    We talked for the next twelve blocks-- about the time he spent in Tokyo and his life in the navy, about my work and dreams I have for my film career.  
    “If you want to travel and make movies, do it now. That's one thing I can say,” he told me. “You'll regret it if you don't.”  

    He was working the polls and I was hired to take photographs on election day. 
    “They called me,” he told me. “This morning they called me to remind me to vote.” 
    “That's great,” I said. 
    “But I was already here. Since six a.m. I am here.” 
    He asked me to take his picture. I told him I could send it to him if he wanted to share his e-mail address. 
    “No,” he replied. “It's just to remember. Today is an exciting day.”  

I didn't see the two of them in the idling car at first, and had to double back when they asked if I was taking pictures. 
    “What are you guys up to?” I asked.
    The passenger nodded at a case of beers. “Hanging.” 
    “Sounds like a fun Sunday.”
    “Yeah. Girl, aren't you a model? Shouldn't you be the one in front of the camera?”
    “Naw,” I told him. “Being behind the camera is so much more fun.”
    “Really?” 
    “Totally.”
    He seemed surprised, so I waved goodbye and left the two of them to mull it over.

He was stocking shelves and asked so quietly I almost didn't hear.
    “You taking photos?”
     The guy at the cash register piped up.
    “Take his picture!” 
    He declined shyly as his coworker egged him on until, without meeting my eyes, finally striking a pose. My bag knocked a pack of Donettes off the shelf and I made to pick it up. He snatched it first.
    “I got it,” he muttered before asking if I could send him the photos. 
    “Happy to,” I said, and his coworker handed me an e-mail address.

 

It was the afternoon of Easter Sunday and one of the nicest days so far that spring. I was debating whether to wait for the bus or to keep walking when he caught my eye through the bar window and waved. I nodded towards my camera and he grinned and posed. I took the photo, waved back, and continued on down the street.

 

    The man with the cigarette is a character, or at least that's what he told me. When I asked him what he did, he told me “Sling real estate,” which I thought was a euphemism until the woman next to him handed me a business card. 
    “The great thing about being short,” he told me next, “is that if someone punches you, they're a real asshole.” The woman rolled her eyes.
    “At least he's never boring,” she whispered. “If you're going to hang out with someone, they damn well better be interesting."

“You taking pictures?” he asked.
He'd seen me stopped by two other men just up the block.
“Apparently,” I replied.
“Take a picture of both of us,” he said, tugging the girl into the picture. She was holding a polo shirt, firmly folded and encased in plastic. 
“What's that?” I asked.
“She just got hired,” he replied proudly and she grinned

.

    I went into a corner store with the camera around my neck when the man in the middle first made a comment. I told him I'd be happy to take a picture, but it took some convincing from his co-worker before he really went for it. At the last minute the guy in the hat was invited in. 
    “You tell us when,” the first man said as I adjusted some camera settings. 
    “Right,” said his co-worker. “One, two, three, 'fuck.'” 

 

    He waved at me as he was getting out of his car. He asked if I wanted to take a picture of monkey face. 
    “That's what my friends call me,” he explained. “Big old uggo like me.” 
    He lives around the corner, but works as a butcher a few neighborhoods over. We talked about his job before this, driving trucks cross country, and how he misses that life. 
    I made it halfway down the block before I heard him calling after me. 
    “For you,” he said, and handed me a single red rose. 

He was making a call outside the bar but no one was picking up.
   "Get my photo," he said, hanging up his phone. 
   "Take your picture?" 
   "Sure, why not?" He stood still for about ten seconds before taking a drag from his cigarette.
  "Darlin', if you're looking for good pictures, check out Montrose Harbor on May 2nd."
  "Why's that?"
  "Kite festival," he told me. "Kids and families and hundreds of kites."
  "You fly any yourself?"
   He shrugged. "A couple."

    He told me politely that he didn't have any photos of himself and would very much appreciate me taking one. He wrote down an e-mail address and requested that I friend him on Facebook.
    I asked him what he did while I checked the focus. He thought about it for a minute.
    “What I can,” he replied. “I do what's moral. I try to help people.”
    “That's great,” I said and we made some other small talk.
    “By the way,” he added as I was turning to leave. “What are you? You're thick as hell.”

    It was the day of the Pride parade.     
    “Take our picture, take our picture,” the one in blue told me. He put an arm around his friend and made kissy faces at me. 
    “All that stuff goin' on downtown,” he said. “But don't worry, we're not.”
    “Not what?” I asked, framing them up. 
    “You know,” he said. “He and I. We're not.”
    “Gay!” the other one said, and they both laughed. 

    I was just outside of the corner store across the street from my apartment. I've seen him around before, and he told me he works in the barber shop next door. Neither one of us had a pen, but I gave him my business card and promised to e-mail him back with the photo if he sent me a message. He never did, but when I was walking back home hours later, I passed the barber shop window. He smiled and waved at me through the glass.