Passport to My Neighborhood - José

Because there was still plenty of available light for about another 90 minutes before having to call it a day, that I decided to venture into another part of San Francisco that not too many people see. I am referring to the Tenderloin District, a place where you will find the worst of the worst, as well as the kind and good hearted unfortunates that call this area home, and this is where I found José.


He was coming out of a building behind me as I was standing partially in the street, photographing the structure across from me. Amidst the noise of traffic, I heard a voice addressing me, asking why I am taking a photograph of the building. While still focused on getting the image, I replied without looking back and simple replied, “because I like the architecture.”

Once finished, I slowly turned around and there stood a man in his late thirties or early forties with a smile on his face, instructing me to look at the light, not the lights in the that were in the building I had just photographed, but how the setting sun by now effect the sky that was visible in the negative spaces between the buildings.

One could tell in his voice that he was expressing a sense of joy for something most would not have taken noticed of or even pondered at length. Yet here was a man who’s heart was filled with a joy, standing amidst one of the sordid squalored parts of town.

He asked if I was a tourist and where I was from, I said I was just from the other side of the bay but originally from Alemania, to which he replied, “Así que usted habla español?” With a sense of embarrassment I had to confess I spoke no Spanish. What followed next made me uncomfortable, as he wanted to know what I thought about Hitler and I feel that there is more to Germany’s history then just Hitler. 

As we continued our conversation, he mentioned if I knew that earlier today another American journalist had been brutally executed by ISIS. It was at this point he kept asking over and over again, why we cannot live in harmony with each other.

We introduced each other and I learned that his name is José and he came from El Salvador. He paused briefly, looked directly into my eyes which did not waver from his gaze, when he began to share his story.

José told me that his mother and father had been killed, actually murdered. He offered no clues as to by whom, how or when. His voice was now more shaky and his gaze avoided me completely other then looking everywhere but really nowhere. A tear began to slowly roll down from his left eye which he choose not to wipe it away. Without a second thought, I embraced him, holding tight this stranger whom I just met a few minutes ago. 

We shared an unspoken moment of intimacy where nothing around us existed. All he wanted was to live in harmony though he had been robbed, even stabbed, it all did not matter. He felt no need for retribution or ill against any of the perpetrators. He forgave them, he was at peace with himself. 

There was an understandable pause and as we slowly continued our conversation,  it was only to bring our meeting to a conclusion and slowly walk in opposite directions.

Often I have walked these and other streets of the less fortunate and wondered about the people I passed, yet always fearful of stopping and engaging a stranger in conversation, even though I wanted to have not only their picture but the story that would accompany that portrait.

José obviously is one of the very few fortunate individuals living in the Tenderloin where human grief and misery flourish in great abundance. These wretched surroundings had no real effect on him. José rose above it, for he took pride in how he looked. His white shirt was clean except for some paint splatter, possible revealing his trade. The facial hair trimmed and his hands were clean. His mannerism civil and polite.

I wish I had asked questions of José but I did not. Our chance meeting was just that and I for one am grateful, that for a few minutes this man trusted me enough to share what was on his mind, in his heart.


In the beginning of meeting José, I asked if I could take his picture and while it was not posed, I also knew I wanted a few casual shots, especially as José talked about himself. With the iPhone already set to silence and the appropriate camera application selected, any additional photographs needed to be captured in stealth mode, this meant not looking at my mobile at any time. 

I was fortunate enough to be resting against a parking meter which I used to steady myself and the arm that held the phone. While driven to get the shots at all costs, I also felt uncomfortable, guilty one might say, when he cried. Believing as well as hoping I had obtained the images, I lowered the iPhone.

The majority of today’s street photography is accomplished on the run, without engaging the subject and when you do inner act with someone, the photographs usually appear posed, something I would like to avoid. 

Because I find character and human drama on these particular streets, where people of all races and nationalities carve out a meager existence, I will return and maybe the next time I will be the one to begin the conversation.

Technical notes: Camera applications were PureShot and Hipstamatic. All images are full frame. and have been post processed using an Apple iPad 4 with retina in Stackables with customized filters developed by me.

All photographs taken with an iPhone 4S by
©2014 Egmont van Dyck - All Rights Reserved

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