How To Make a “Disgusting” Photo

Photographing and meeting my hero, James Nachtwey, while getting an earful from the peanut gallery

My "Disgusting" photo of James Nachtwey.

James Nachtwey is one of my heroes and a source of inspiration. When asked, "If you could meet anyone in history?" I usually answer, "James Nachtwey."

When the door opened for his Keynote address I pushed my way through the crowd and somehow got a seat on the front row right in the center. James was on stage trying to get his computer working and the crowd waited. I decided to pull out my camera and shoot a few frames.

The light was very low so I put a flash on my camera. I decided to use my 200mm lens so I could get a decent shot. I took a few photos and then something totally unexpected happened. The guy next to me began to critique my skills.

He began by shaking his head and then said (with a very strong German accent), "No, no. I'm sorry but that picture is horrible. It's disgusting. It's not even average."

Excuse me?

"It's disgusting. You need to use wide angle lens, you need to get right up to him and use a spot meter and figure out the proper exposure. Do you have a light meter? Your photo tells no story, why are you even shooting?"

I didn't know how to even respond to this guy, so I said the first thing that came to my mind, "Who are you?" I mean if this was Shaul Schwarz or Damon Winter I'd certainly want to hear what they had to say. But it wasn't either of those guys or even anyone I'd heard of, although he did make sure I knew he "commuted from Munich to New York regularly." Good for you dude.

He continued, "You need to frame your shot totally differently. You need to get Mr. Nachtwey and his photos at the same time, nobody will want to see your photo. Turn off your flash, why are you shooting like this?" Still amazed I replied, "It's for my blog."

"Your blaahg." He drew out the "aaaah" sound for dramatic effect. "Nobody will want to see your blaaahg."

At this point I was not a very happy camper. But I understood what the dude was saying. In the context of James Nachtwey it made sense. Nachtwey has made a career out of getting closer. I've even written about it on this blog. The light from my flash would be flat, the shot unflattering, no context, no story.

But I didn't care.

I just wanted a damn shot of James Nachtwey to document the fact that I'd been in his presence, to put a visual stamp on the memory of the moment. What Mr. Munich didn't know was that I planned on shooting many more shots during the presentation. He had no idea what my blog was about or how I'd display the photo.

When I'm shooting it's very important to me to know the context of the presentation. It changes the way I make a photo. I don't shoot family vacation shots the same way I shoot a scenic photography. The intent is totally different. One shot is to capture a memory and the other is to create art.

I happen to like my disgusting photo of James Nachtwey. He's isolated and looks very introspective. He's just as I imagined he would be.

After the lights dimmed and James began to speak I was consumed by his imagery and inspired by his message. I was moved by his passion and desire to change humanity through photography.


After the event James was besieged by hundreds of photographers who wanted to get a shot or meet the legend.


And somehow I got close...

...and talked to...


... Mr. James Nachtwey.

My friend Zowie Stapleton was there to record it all with my iPhone camera. The pictures are all wrong, average and disgusting.

I'll cherish them for the rest of my life.

The above originally appeared in Mark Wallace's Snapfactory "blaahg." It is reproduced here with his permission.


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