Solitary labor

Dawn was just about breaking when I saw him through the haze of cement dust.

In a sea of construction workers milling around for breakfast, this man was off to an early start, splitting rocks by a huge site.

The man seemed entirely misplaced. He had no uniform or hard hat, just a white blazer, dirty jeans and disheveled hair.  A migrant worker being roped to do odd jobs perhaps? Or maybe he was behind in his duties and was forced to catch up during breakfast time.

With each incessant thump, his task seemed futile with his inferior tools against stubborn concrete that refused to break apart. His frustration carried through his tense body and grew with the senseless hammering.

Suddenly, his eyes met mine through the camera lens and burned a fiery red.

“What the hell are you doing?” He growled.

I mumbled a quick apology, sensing that his anger was more visceral than I could handle. There was an inherent rage in him that I felt I had foolishly triggered with my intrusion.

He shifted toward me and I quickened my pace away from him.

That was when he spat in my direction, raising his fists as he broke into a stream of verbal abuse. He cursed and kept cursing. Horrible and vulgar words that came out of his mouth were coated in angry spittle.

The reasons for his anger mattered little. Just that he wanted me to feel his wrath.

October 2009



  • Reply January 23, 2010

    Chen Yonghui

    I suppose the reason for his anger mattered little to you, but it probably meant a great deal beyond the words to him. Now, I’m certain that you’ve been either in China OR out of high school long enough to know that you ask subjects for their approval before you photograph them. Perhaps this man you regard as a vulgar stereotype took offense at the 1000th foreigner (this year) who shows up to photograph him with a camera that costs more than he will likely make this decade.

    Perhaps he didn’t care for being your compulsory dance partner while you compose yet another simplistic snapshot of poverty for all the voyeurs/art lovers who show up at your blog?

    Art for arts sake, maybe this is what you’ll say. Perhaps he found art in the arc of the vulgarities he uttered at you… ala Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce.

  • Reply November 9, 2010


    if street photography in public spaces requires the explicit permission of every subject, there’d be no record of what people go through in every city and country. It’s not art; it’s an ongoing effort to capture change and those who are caught up in it, for better or worse. She has a right to photograph him. He has the right to be angry, though who can tell if the photographer is the sole and singled out subject of his wrath or a switch that triggered a deeper Angst?

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