Sometimes the writer finds the story, but sometimes it is the other way around, and the story finds the writer. I had no particular reason to go to Amsterdam. It was just something I wanted to do. I found a cheap ticket and a friend recommended a good hotel, so I went.
Two summers before I had spent a week at a fancy photography workshop in Maine. The idea was to make a photo essay, a series of documentary photographs that tell a story. You couldn't just turn in a series of pictures, in other words. They had to present a narrative arc.
This meant finding a subject to follow for the week, but nothing seemed to satisfy the National Geographic photographer teaching our class. Even before leaving for Maine, for example, I made plans to document the work of an environmental group working to save the last of Maine's lobsters. There was a good chance I could go on a lobster boat, with an actual Maine lobsterman, the last of a dying breed.
"Oh God," my instructor said when I called to run the idea past her, her voice perfectly flat, "lobster fishing."
Was there a problem?
"Every summer I get one student who wants to do lobster fishing," she said. She didn't sound impressed. This surprised me. Wouldn't lobster fishing make a great photo essay? Saving an endangered species? Some haggard Maine lobsterman, with a grey beard and a pipe, maybe? The last of a dying breed? The orange light of sunset spangled by water droplets shaking loose from a net hauled out of the water?
"OK," she said. "You go out, you shoot one day on the boat, right?"
Her voice had an edge. I pictured a big desk, and her stumping out a cigarette and exhaling aggressively. Smoke everywhere.
"What do you do then? Where's the rest of the story?"
Of course I had no idea. It was pretty much the end of my pitch. I wouldn't be doing the lobster story.
The short of it is, I spent the week careening all over Eastern Maine but nothing panned out. The photogenic couple selling sails to tourists on their refurbished schooner, the emergency medial technician who played in a band, last year's demolition derby winner who was running this year's competition at the county fair. I got some good pictures but couldn't seem to find any picture stories.
It wasn't for lack of trying. I followed the demolition derby queen all over, even taking photos of her tending bar until she told me that most of her customers were wanted by the police and didn't like having their pictures taken. I arranged to meet her the next day back at the fair. She didn't show.
It became a mystery to me. How could a series of pictures ever tell a single story? Pictures, I decided, after an exhausting and slightly frustrating week, do not do this. It was a fiction of the photojournalism world. Individual pictures tell stories, sure, and a series of pictures might tell any number of stories. But no group of pictures tells a single story, not in the way a piece of writing does. Nothing against photojournalism, I decided, but pictures illustrate things. They don't tell their own stories.
But back to Amsterdam. I took my camera there for fun, as a distraction. Not to capture any kind of photo story of Amsterdam, in other words. I figured I'd take it out once or twice, get a frame I could put on the mantle above my fireplace, and call it good.
I didn't notice until I got home that on the three days I wandered around the city with my camera, almost all of my pictures were of a single subject: bicycles. I had chosen a subject without intending to. Or, maybe, the subject had chosen me.
Amsterdam is not just bicycle friendly, it is bicycle crazy. Its bike paths are like mechanized rivers. The morning commute is a city-wide pelleton. Bicycles cling to the railings of every canal and are heaped in piles onto the bike racks in every square. Whereas in other cities you hear birds chirping in the trees, in Amsterdam you hear the whir of spinning wheels and the chime of handlebar bells.
Amsterdam is a sophisticated city, and its cyclists do their part. They ride while wearing long black coats and dress pants. They ride while smoking, and while talking on the phone. Friends ride sidesaddle, on the small rack over the rear wheel, and still manage to look nonchalant. Because bicycle theft is such a problem, everyone rides the same old-school bike that looks like it was used to dispatch communiques to the front in World War II. Amsterdam's cyclists captivated me, and when I got home I found I had taken dozens of pictures of them.
I also found, in the pictures I had taken, something I didn't think was possible. Sifting through my pictures I found eight photographs that, in the right order, did what a photos essay is supposed to do: they told a story.
In the third photo you realize bicycles are the theme of the series. After that the pictures become like a game. There's going to be bicycle in each one, you know, and each scene shows its subject in a different light. The seventh frame is my favorite. It makes me realize how beautiful those bicycles and their riders were, and how integral to the life of the city, to be in so many different places and settings. It's like looking at the different sides of a character and, at a certain point, seeing the whole.
In the last picture an old bicycle with shiny whitewalls leans against the rail of a bridge across the Prinsengracht Canal. Its front wheel is turned modestly toward the camera, and rain drops cling to its worn frame. In the background the tower of the Westerkerk, the historic church adjacent to the Anne Frank House, stands against the charcoal sky, between the rows of trees lining the canal.
To me that picture is like seeing a friend in a new light. Like the moment you see in someone an aspect of beauty you never before appreciated. Maybe because you just found out something about him or her you never knew, something someone could have only told you in a story.