I like to make fiction. To me, this means the content within the frame exists in its own imagined “universe.” There’s a story embedded into the details, full of characters and situations that ideally are independent of the other story: the real life decisions and processes that were utilized for the fictional stage to exist. For the latter, I consider it to be the story behind the story.
This photograph is titled “If You Want To Talk.” When creating titles for images in the 9months project, I had a loose set of rules. A title couldn’t be longer than five words, it could not contain a first person perspective, and it should prolong the image. With the third rule, by that I mean the title should not answer the question in the photograph. My goal when creating these frames of fiction is to create a moment that does not provide solutions. More questions, yes, but I’m not terribly interested in using photography as a problem solver. Due to this, it felt crazy to let titles be important enough to solve the story. This was the first project where I put real energy into creating titles that weren’t simply sequential numbers, so I wanted to make sure they contributed to forwarding the discussion.
A side effect in 9months is that every reference to an individual is in second person perspective. I wanted all of the small details in the project to feel like they were addressing a specific person. Personally, I had an ideal person in mind, but the format was vague enough to not be a barrier for others to step in and let them form a uniquely personal connection.
So the title addresses an impending conversation, presumably with one individual to another. But what specifically does someone want to talk about? Why can’t they talk? What does this even mean? The truth is, there’s a duality of stories taking place. In the world of fiction for me, the who is someone from a previous relationship. But in the story behind the story, this phrase originated years ago from a man on an Amtrak during an overnight train ride to Chicago.
In the summer of 2002, a buddy and I decided to travel from Louisiana to Chicago for a week of city exploration. It was the first time to travel via Amtrak for either of us. I was a smoker at the time and was excited to discover that a special car was on the train dedicated to smokers. This feature doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s a shame. Not because people can’t smoke, but because this car became a gathering place for everyone, smokers and nonsmokers, in a way none of the other lounge areas could. Traveling via train is a world completely opposite of air travel. It’s slower and way more social. Security is essentially nonexistent, so open bottles of alcohol from home were everywhere. Being young and adventurous, we had brought some of our own for the travel. In so many ways, it was the perfect setting for a party. People of all walks of life came together in the car for a smoke, and ended up becoming part of this motley crew.
For 99% of the time, everyone got along great. There was one wild instance where a man from California nearly came to punching blows with a woman from Florida, due to leap of logic over their conversation. That mellowed the vibe for a brief moment, but he quickly left and everything picked back up. Drinks were passed around. Cigarettes were bummed. Everyone had a story, and after two hours of drinking, everyone felt perfectly comfortable and proud to share that story.
One person I knew only as the “But of Course” man. A few hours into the travel, the train arrived in Memphis for a 15 minute stop to board new passengers. He took this opportunity to flag a taxi outside the train station and slapped $100 on the dash of the car. If the taxi could get him to the nearest liquor store and back before the train left, the driver could have it. The driver was successful, and the “But of Course” man brought a new liter of Tanqueray gin into the party. Later on when asked if that was indeed the drink, he uttered his namesake line. I’m sure he introduced himself to me at some point with a real name, but how can I remember something so mundane when a much better story connects my memory to him?
I met all sorts of interesting characters. I met a man with only half a head of teeth who used crutches to get around, but adamantly assured me he was a pimp in Chicago. Anything I’d want, he said. White girls, black girls, Asian girls, and then made the universal gesture for receiving a blowjob. I never took him up on his business proposal, despite the generosity.
By 2 or 3 AM, everyone was fairly intoxicated. Inside jokes were created and utilized within that timeframe. One of them was the relative certainty that any new person who joined the train from about Kentucky to destination was probably a cop. This led to a humorous paranoia that created absolute silence the minute any new person walked into the car. Everyone just stared at the person for a moment, and then in loud whispers, pondered the probability of this new individual’s proximity to a police badge. The pseudo-tension was eliminated as soon as one of the car’s “regulars” asked to bum a cigarette off the new person and was obliged.
During a stretch of time late in the night, an older gentleman sat across from me. He was wearing a red hat, red shirt, red shorts, and although I can’t remember for certain, he may have also been wearing red shoes. For simplicity’s sake, I referred to him as “Red.” He left for a period of time, and then returned with red eyes to match his attire.
Somewhere around Carbondale or another town in southern Illinois, a new passenger got on the train and came immediately to the smoking car. He was dressed really nice, not quite business attire but similar to someone who was traveling directly to a business-casual lunch. He was given the typical new passenger treatment, with some folks pondering audibly if he was carrying a wire taped to his chest. This new man was understandably confused by all of this, and confirmed that he was not, in fact, carrying a wire to record everyone’s conversations. He was eventually welcomed into the car after he fulfilled a cigarette request.
Amongst the return of chatter and discussions about undercover agents wearing wires for conversations, Red sighed. He rolled his eyes and stated:
“If you want to talk about shit, get in the pool.”
At that moment in time, Red instantly became the coolest, funniest, and most awesome person I met on my trip to Chicago. I laughed, and would continue to laugh for the next few years anytime my friend or I used that line in conversations. It was even funnier when I used the phrase to someone who had no reference point to that night on a train bound for the Windy City.
Years later, while deciding on names for the photographs in my latest series, I examined all of the variables of the content within each frame. When I came across this depiction of my character carefully and methodically examining the pool in front of him, perhaps acknowledging a risk or danger that will come from deciding to take the plunge, I pondered how a title could be utilized for the image. I didn’t want to answer the story, so I decided to do something else with the title…
I decided to share Red’s advice.