The sky over Sicily was white that afternoon as a soccer ball skimmed across the surface of Ennas piazza. Three young boys, shoeless, chased after it, yelling at the top of their lungs. No goals, no goalies, no sneakers, and no winner -- only a rush of energy transferred from player to player through that ball.
The air crisp, I walked with my jacket zipped to the top, looking for one great photograph, wondering if one of the young soccer stars would provide it.
"How can they possibly be barefoot on such a cold day?" I thought to myself. I reached under my arm for my fathers old Minolta and knelt at the edge of the square. Was this how great photographs were made? Could I just steal a moment in time, develop it, and make it mine?
The soccer game became two-dimensional from behind the viewfinder as I pondered shutter speed and aperture. Do I want to stop the motion all together, or do I want to be able to see the movement in the picture? Do I want to blur the background, or do I want the expression of the other players faces to come out crisp?
Click. Not my camera shutter, my knee. Id been kneeling down too long and my knee wasnt digging it. The shot would have to wait. I stood up to see half my class taking the same picture. So whatever I wouldnt have won any points for originality, anyhow.
"Man these kids are good at soccer," I said out loud to nobody in particular. I thought about school for a second. I remembered how one of my professors talked about teaching us at a higher level than we were used to in order to force us to get better. Here before me was the physical manifestation of that concept: boys no older than 8 or 9 holding their own in a contest against men older than me. "Va bene."
As well as picking up the lingo of photography, I was beginning to remember a lot of the Italian Id learned three years prior. The fast-paced clicking and slurring of the Sicilian dialect was starting to slow down in my brain and form actual words and understandable sentences. I struggled for a few moments to try and pick up what the boys in front of me were yelling.
"Pass me the ball!" "Youre having your picture taken!" Nothing too interesting to tap into over here.
The breeze picked up as I turned and faced an ancient gray chiesa. It was as if the wind from Mary Poppins blew across Sicily at that moment, sweeping together the ominous church, the white sky, and the background noise of the scoreless soccer game.
Suddenly, the knob on the giant wooden door in front of me began to turn. Slowly the wall opened, so that a small, ancient Sicilian could make his way from within the sacred confines of the hall. His olive-aged skin, deep pensive eyes, and the way he held himself there in the doorway were what I had been looking for. "Is this Sicily or what?" flashed through my head. This would be my great Sicilian photograph.
"Scusi, Senore," I said as I made my way toward this small gem of a man. "Scusi, perfavore, posso fare una photographia, senore?" I couldnt very well just take this gentlemans picture without first asking permission. I climbed up the stairs so that I stood one tier down from him and asked him once more.
He looked at me. It was a look that spoke to me and echoed in my brain. Somehow this man had tapped into something inside me before he began to speak, and once he opened his mouth I understood perfectly what he was saying. In a tone both proud and pleading at the same time he explained to me how he could not understand why people would photograph a man going home from church.
"People photograph me at my home, they photograph me in the street, they photograph me drinking coffee." He said to me, "I do not like tourists."
The whole time he was telling me of his experiences with these Americiani his hands were spinning me further and further into his world -- he finger-painted the sky, somehow casting a spell through which I was able to understand him. Not just what he was saying, but somehow understand, through his deep eyes, why he wanted to be left untouched by the lenses of these picture-hungry sharks.
He continued. I nodded with his gestures. I felt bad for even approaching him. There was no way I could have known his feelings However, now that I did understand, I felt I owed him an apology on behalf of everyone that had aimed a camera at him in the past.
A camera flash awakened me from this ancient Sicilians trance. No longer a city of peaceful cafes and reverent churches, Enna again became a town teeming with hungry lenses snapping at the prey who have mistakenly become too comfortable at home. Tourists, once there to admire the beauty and culture of this ancient place, let fall their sheeps clothing to reveal the poachers withinthere to shoot everything in sight with or without permission. Standing there, my eyes still locked with the mans in front of me, I realized that I, too, was part of this hunting expedition. My hand rested on my cold camera. My mind raced. Were pictures really the most important things to bring back from Sicily?
With my attention diverted, the mans language again became foreign to me. Scattered familiar words darted out at my ears, but my focus was on finding that phantom photographer whod snapped me back. The flash was more than just a camera: it was a light going on in my head, and I knew something had changed. I wanted to be a lemming no longer led around by my camera viewfinder.
Behind the lens to my left stood Dave, a grinning reminder of what I was doing in Sicily -- taking as many pictures as possible in a 9-day span of time. I knew that Dave hadnt just listened to the gentlemans story, I knew his head wasnt tearing through questions of personal priorities, and so I just turned back to the story at hand, trying to pick up the rest. The old man spoke as if the conversation never paused.
Flash! Again? This time my eyes didnt wander. Instead, I was waiting for a moment to excuse myself and hopefully carry some of my classmates away with me, leaving the man to go about his business in peace.
"Sc .Scu Scusi senore," I stuttered between his sentences, trying not to appear rude. Silence. What had just happened? The man stood there, dark eyes peering into me. He had asked me a question and I missed it. He repeated himself. He wanted to know where I was from in Italy.
"Napoli?" he asked.
Was he serious? I didnt answer him right away. I was flattered that he wasnt counting me as one of the foreign tourists of whom he had just spoken so negatively.
He stood waiting for an answer as I thought about how he would react to my telling him that I was an Americano. No words came to my lips. I wanted to excuse myself right then and there, leaving the conversation as it was, two strangers discussing tourists and then going about their business in Enna.
"He wants to know where youre from," boomed Davids voice from beside me.
The jig was up. The man looked at Dave and back at me, still waiting for a response.
Almost apologetically, I lifted my eyes to him. "Senore, sonno un touristo Americano," I said to him. "Scusa. Buonna sera senore."
I turned from him and his church and walked back to the bus. Dave and I laughed together about the whole situation.
"What was he telling you, dude?" asked Dave.
"How much he hates tourists and having his picture taken," I answered him.
I retold the story to a few friends on the bus and then sat back and closed my eyes. Pictures are fine, I thought, as long as I take time to back up from the camera and just appreciate whats going on around me -- not so much a revelation as a reawakening to a place where experiences are to be lived, not just collected.
The bus pulled away and I chuckled to myself. I had no pictures of the soccer players and no picture of the old man but I had a pretty nifty story to tell about my afternoon in Enna. Right?