We were ten men, sitting around the lunch table in Huaibei, China. The heat in the room was stifling. The cigarette smoke, suffocating. Our brains were soaked with local liquor and our bellies were bursting with local food. It was a group of coal miners - and me - one of only six foreign people living in a city of two million Chinese.
To my left sat a man named Zhou. He had never been around a foreign person before and was tickled to be at my side. I can’t speak Chinese and he couldn’t speak English, so our communication was limited to hand gestures...and beer toasts. He’d been mining for years. He smelled strong - of hard work and low pay. His missing front tooth presented a gaping hole in his face. He laughed and smiled without reproach.
We devoured the plates. We emptied the bottles. Lunch grew to a maddening crescendo. Zhou suddenly ripped off his shirt and lit a cigarette. His body odor wafted across the table, only to be challenged by the dense fug that encompassed the room. I’d been holding the Rolleifllex between my feet for the entire afternoon. Watching. And waiting. This was the shot.
I grabbed the camera, gave Zhou a pat on the back and motioned for him to turn to the window. He did. And I made the picture.
I had the pleasure of using a Rolleiflex TLR for a decade. It was a delightful machine. A piece of art. Simple. Sturdy. And sharp. But it’s not the romance of that camera I miss. It’s the discipline. Each shot was special. Each shot had meaning. Each shot was framed, composed. And loved. I knew what I wanted. i knew when I saw what I wanted. And I would always take one shot. Just one.
Today, as I stumble through a quagmire of modern technology, I’ve lost discipline. I return home with too many photos. Too much stuff. Sifting through a half dozen frames of the same photo diminishes the moment. And the photograph. In the past, I was confident with the one shot. Now that I have the luxury to continue shooting without additional expense or effort, I keep pushing that button. I’m trying to understand the psychological factor that keeps me shooting, even after the moment has passed.
Life moves forward. I must move with it. But in order for me to move forward, I need to take a step back. In spite of having eight gigs worth of memory on that tiny card, I want to make each shot important. Again. I want each shot to count. I want to revere the moment and take the time get it right the first time. Simplify. Clarify. And believe in myself. Because I’ve only got one shot. Just one.
By John Torrente