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ON THAT DAY, “Cigarette” by Stephen Shames

ON THAT DAY, “Cigarette” by Stephen Shames

With On That Day, photographers are invited to tell the story behind one of their photographs. Today, photographer Stephen Shames tells a encounter with some kids on an American street corner… 

“I spent the entire year of 1985 photographing child poverty in the United States after I received an Alicia Patterson Foundation grant. I bought a car and drove across the country, starting in southern California, where I spent six weeks living with and photographing homeless families. I witnessed the farm crisis in Iowa, the black ghettos of Chicago, unemployed and displaced steel workers in Indiana, families in rural Florida, in post-industrial Philadelphia, and along the Mexican border in Texas.

In the early summer I visited my friend D. Gorton in Cincinnati. He told me about Lower Price Hill, a neighborhood of poor whites from Kentucky and West Virginia, living in Cincinnati. I went there and spent the better part of a week hanging out, talking to people and taking photos. I walked around and spotted these two at a public swimming pool. I asked them if I could take their photo and they agreed. Sometimes I spend a long time with people observing and waiting, but in this instance, I think things happened quickly. I took this photo and then left them and continued my walk around the neighborhood.

Cigarette, 1985 © Stephen Shames

I am attracted to images that have a simple composition, yet are complex psychologically. This scene with two kids standing out against a dark brick wall and door was simple and graphic. What was going on was complex, dangerous and sweet simultaneously. 

The young boy smoking caught my attention. Smoking at such a young age is unhealthy behavior. A child at risk. Yet, the scene did not strike me as perilous because there was also something tender, almost sweet, in this moment. Their body language said it all. How the girl had her hand on the boy’s head. The look on her face, and his. The friendship between these two; their bond made a contrast. This contrast between tenderness and love and the negative aspects of them smoking was heightened by the “real rebels” on her t-shirt. The interaction of a boy and girl coming of age. Trying to act grown up, yet still maintaining some degree of innocence.

Of course, in the moment I snapped the shutter of my camera, I did not think any of these things. I just reacted to the moment. When photographing you do not have time to think, you have to feel it — you have to be totally immersed in the moment.”

By Stephen Shames

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