A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: My Homeless Photo Assistant

rio de janeiro mural

What separates great photographers from the rest is composition; knowing what to crop out, and what to capture in those unforgettable images. And anyone who is in marketing, photography, or media knows that there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to a great image.

I recently cleaned out my photo database, while reminiscing on all of the memories and adventures of where I’d been and the story behind the photos. So I decided to write this series to tell the story of how I got a particular picture, and to provide my audience with an authentic angle of what had really happened. This is the first…

I had just come from the most famous bakery in Rio de Janeiro where I had interviewed their head chef about the history of this iconic landmark in the center of Rio. He generously gifted me with enough food to feed a small family, and I gladly gathered it all up in a to-go box as I left to my next stop.

As I walked down the winding streets of Rio’s downtown, trying to find a mural that an ex-boyfriend had shown me months before, I turned a corner into an alley. Coming towards me was a homeless man – barefoot and broken. My initial instinct was a bit of fear, but it would have been odd to turn and go back, so I assertively advanced towards him. As we got closer to each other, I asked him if he was hungry.

I wasn’t sure what he mumbled, but I immediately handed him the box of goodies from the bakery. Partially as a gift, and partially as a distraction from the rest of the stuff I was carrying(purse, camera, tripod). As a woman traveling alone, I’m often hyper-sensitive to being robbed or assaulted, given all of the grim statistics. I wasn’t sure what would happen next, but I was relieved that he was seemingly preoccupied with the food.

When I realized that this homeless man had no interest in my stuff after immediately sitting on the curb and tearing into his lunch, I set up my tripod and camera to take this picture. He asked what I was doing, and so I told him a bit about my job and my plans in Rio.

Trying to attempt a photo shoot in an alley alone is no easy feat, so I quickly realized that I would need his help to angle my camera on the tripod, and eventually tell me where to stand. “Esquerda!” he yelled, as I moved a little to the left…”Mais…isso”, signaling the perfect stance.

Eventually a couple wandered down the alley, with raised eyebrows, since my photo assistant with dirty and torn clothes, in contrast to my outfit of a silk skirt and stark white bodysuit wasn’t quite what one would expect. We were definitely the dynamic duo!

In that moment, we needed each other. I provided food. He provided artistic direction. As I gathered up my goods, I thanked him and wandered along the cobblestone path, turning the corner to my next destination. Walking along Rio’s downtown, I wondered how he got there. How long had he been homeless? What life crisis led him to end up on the streets?

And I guess that’s true with any homeless person. There is a story of how they got there. A series of unforgiving circumstances that led them down their own dark alley.

To read more about the plague of homelessness in my hometown of Los Angeles, California, click here.