Where Photographers Drink
My work as a photographer is much more as a documentarian than an artist. It's more about who's in the picture than who took the picture. And the barstool is a perfect metaphor for a form of documentation. Bars are where stories are told. Bars are where you discover the intimate details of someone's life.
I think I knew that from a very young age. A lot of why I became a travel photographer comes out of emulating the way my dad, who passed away recently, talked to people in bars. There's a universe to be discovered in a stranger in 10 minutes of conversation—a mini- universe that can profoundly change your understanding of the world. I learned that from him.
I was in love with my wife after our first date. And three weeks after I met her, I said, "My dad's got this dilapidated house down in Aruba, just wildly imperfect but a great place to hang out. You want to come down with me?" And through recommendations from locals who lived on the same road we did, we often found ourselves at places that were slightly off the beaten path, like Charlie's Bar. I'm a sucker for any bar that pays homage to its historical value, and it struck me how Charlie's had collected tons of stuff from the people who would show up—license plates and paintings and hats. It got its start basically as a place that served beer to the guys who worked at the oil refinery. You're definitely not on the beach there. It's not a place where someone's serving a piña colada to you on a cart.
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This alleyway in Shinjuku has a formal name, Omoide Yokocho, but the nickname is Piss Alley. It came from the fact that most of the restaurants and bars are four- or five-seaters with no bathrooms, so if you drink a lot of beer, you end up taking a piss out behind the restaurant.
If you don't speak Japanese, it's hard to strike up a conversation in a Japanese bar, obviously. Instead, a lot of the interaction is through body language. You're hopping between restaurants; you gesture to what you want to eat or drink; you get a thumbs-up or a smile.
As a photographer, I started out by asking for forgiveness instead of permission. It's the difference between stealing a picture and taking a picture. I've done an about-face on that as I've gotten older, but the place where I break that rule is bars. Because creating an image in a bar that's just "we're all happy, and we're having one drink and then driving home safely afterward"—what's the point of that? You have to get a photo that's telling. I'd rather throw my camera in the river than not come home with the picture.
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My love for Harry's started during a year abroad in Sicily, back when I was in school. My college girlfriend had cheated on me, and I was heartbroken. My old man got me a ticket to Venice and flew over to meet me. He urged me to get the burger, which is $46 there. It was a magical place to spend time with my dad and stop worrying about being heartbroken and rack up a bill that neither of us could afford.
Years later, I'd been on a string of assignments and away from my dog and my wife for over two months. After the last one, a nine-day stint in the Italian Alps, I went to Venice. I ended up at Harry's on a Tuesday afternoon in late winter.
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The people at Harry's Bar that day were all Northern Italian. No tourists. Two impeccably dressed older gentlemen came in and were treated basically like royalty. I knew I wanted to get their photo and was waiting for that moment of snap, when your good photo turns into a great photo. I spent upward of 120 euros on five overpriced bellinis, just waiting for one of these guys to put his sunglasses back on.
Then the maître d' started yelling at me, saying, "Hey, you can't do that." I'm looking at him. This was the moment, and he was ruining it. So I just turned and took a photo of him instead. And then they threw me out. Though I still had to pay my bill.