I met Yosef along a quiet countryside road in Northern Belarus. I was in my car, he was riding a bicycle to his home. We talked. I asked if he had a traditional house. I told him that I was making photos of people in rural areas in and outside of their traditional homes. He did have a traditional home and I could check it out if wanted to.
I soon learned that Yosef’s home was isolated, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. I had to park the car along the road. Then my wife and I walked over a creek and through some rye fields to reach the home.
It turned out that Yosef was all alone. He had moved recently from Latvia. His wife and son had died. His pension was too low to pay for living expenses in Latvia. This house was his ancestral home. There was no rent to pay, but also no electricity and no running water.
At the time of the photo Yosef was 82. He was still in great shape, still ploughing his land with a horse. We became friends and visited him a few times over my stay in Belarus in 2009. We even tried to get him connected to a powerline.
This photo was taken during a winter visit. It was cold inside his home, so cold that when he poured hot tea into the glasses one of them cracked from the sudden temperature change.
I never got to know if Yosef did get connected to a powerline. We visited him a couple of years later. He wasn’t home, but, drying laundry outside and his little dog with dog food in the bowl were an indication that he was still alive. We left a note and a gift.
I haven’t visited Yosef since. The reason is a rather silly one, I’ve lost the GPS where I had programmed in his home. Having depended so much on the GPS I actually never made a mental note of where Yosef lived and, my mind is so full of other maps that they’re all jumbled up in there. I may try finding Yosef this year, though 7 years after our first meeting, I have no idea if he is still around.
Main reasons I think it works
Of course the window side light is important here, but also it’s the feeling of intimacy and the casualness of the situation that makes the photo work. Yosef was comfortable enough with our presence not to pay any attention to the camera. He’s doing his thing. It’s a real slice of life kind of photograph.
Most important tip
Connecting with the people in front of your camera can be of utmost importance, but why we need to do this can come off as something of a mystery. Many of those who highlight the importance of a connection often never quite pin-point what it is about your photographs that will be better if you connect.
It’s actually really, very simple. Connecting puts the subject at ease in front of the camera. The connection leads to opportunities that you might not have otherwise. It starts with something as simple as being invited for tea. Then, it’s about the little nuances like the subject being so comfortable that he/she just continues going about what they're doing without paying any attention to you, while you make photos.
The latter doesn't sound like some great achievement, but, it actually isn't that easy. It does generally take time and a certain level of comfort, for the person in front of the camera to completely ignore the photographer.