Not many people know this, but this is the photograph that pushed me over the edge into becoming a professional photographer.
I took this picture when I was seventeen years old. A high school friend, Tino Chippola and myself skipped the last three hours of school, got in his old mustang and drove into the nether regions of Detroit to photograph the abandoned Jefferson street train station, an icon for aspiring photographers, grafitti artists and vagrants.
We wove through the gritty streets of Detroit, decaying even in 1997. After parking we walked through the weeds and towards the hulking station. It was the only standing building nearby, no parking lots, everything around it just acres of weeds. It was classic Detroit- no guards, no signs, no fence, no doors. As we walked closer and closer, a man or perhaps a boy, maybe our age or maybe older, approached us and wanted to know if we wanted a tour of the station. I remember every pore screaming danger, do not walk around the abandoned strain station with a stranger who might kill us and take my camera. The stranger said he was a poet. Tino was all for it, pointing out that the stranger wore a crucifix, and thus must be good people. Me not being Catholic, I had no argument to the contrary. So in we went.
The main concourse was covered in a litter of garbage, mostly paper strewn about. Every window of the hundreds overhead was broken, letting pigeons nest everywhere. Near the back were stairs that went up the 20-something stories to the roof, and also the basement below. We were warned, ‘people live in the basement and people die in the basement’ eliminating it’s exploration as an option.
Up we went. Me, being the pessimist, watched every step, even though only a wrecking ball could damage the reinforced concrete stairs. Often there was no railing, stolen for scrap, leaving an abyss in the middle of the stairs. Tino, ever gregarious, chatted with our guide constantly as we stopped on different floors, looking around, taking a picture or two.
Our guide said that the roof was the best part, and it lived up to his word. From the top of the building we had a panorama of the city below us. It was the tallest structure for miles around. As we gaped at the view, I took a quick picture of our guide as he stood watching us. I knew it was good when I shot it, but until I processed the negative the next day, I didn’t know how good.
This picture pulled me into photojournalism, into portraiture, into making pictures of people. Our guide never led us astray, kept us from floors that were dangerous and patiently answered every question. We never paid him any money and none was asked for. This was my first time experiencing true kindness from a stranger. In exchange for my trust, I was given a moment to photograph, one of the most personal images I have ever taken.
This photograph represents everything that I was at that time. A poet, a thinker, a stranger, alone, surrounded, and proud.
My only regret from that day was that I never got his name.