by Joanna Hannigan
I took just one photo of her that spring evening she resumed the ramble, as she called it. She wouldn’t accept the money or food I offered. She did reluctantly accept a change of clothes, left behind last autumn by a former tenant. She layered two long sleeve jerseys and a brown wool shirt over her thin frame, and donned a light weight water resistant jacket, a pair of work pants, and worn, sturdy boots. I included another top and mismatched socks inside the sleeping bag, and added a small bag of toiletries, comb, pen, notepad, and stamps. I helped her tightly wrap it all inside a 6 foot length of oilcloth and secured it with sturdy twine.
In more than 50 years as a photojournalist I had never done anything so impulsive and selfless as I did the night I found her. I have photographed tragedy, hunger, hopelessness, and despair in its human forms. She bore all its hallmarks. There was a shopping cart lying on its side 20 yards away, rusty but serviceable. I lined the carriage with my coat and laid her gently in it. Her bare, bruised legs and dirty feet dangled over the side. I wheeled her to the car I’d bought recently, a Hillman Lynx convertible.
I’ve never understood why I brought her to the house loaned to me by the magazine. My motives could easily have been misconstrued; I should have taken her to a hospital. Instead, I laid her on the sofa and fetched clean towels and hot water. Without invading her privacy, I sponged the girl, and checked for broken bones and track marks. She was covered in cuts and bruises, which I disinfected, stitched and covered with plasters. She didn’t stir as I tucked a pillow beneath her head and piled on comforters. I made a pot of coffee and settled in the chair facing the bay window.
In the morning she awoke terrified, thrashing, fighting off invisible layers of confining coils. I told her she was safe here, and free to leave. The girl groaned, and drew the bedding around her. She asked for water, which I brought, and pointed out where the bathroom was, adding there were fresh towels, clean clothes—and soap. She surveyed her surroundings, grabbed a pair of kitchen shears, and hobbled to the bathroom.
I assumed she would avail herself of bath amenities, grab some food, and flee. Instead she stayed two weeks, saying little but conveying her gratitude and grace in small ways. She helped prepare a simple breakfast and did the dishes. She created a wonderful stew, using the hen I’d planned to roast. It snowed the next day; 10 inches blanketed the area. She spent hours huddled in the club chair by the window, amid comforters and pillows. An ice storm followed. I worked on my next exhibition, explaining my passion for capturing the realness of a moment. She looked on quietly. The girl made a hearty dinner pie, using the last eggs, ham, onion, and most of the cream. Whenever I complimented her, she would blush, and withdraw to the chair.
I talked more in those weeks than I did in the years to come. She listened and nodded, sipped tea and dabbed lotion on her cuts, elusive and enigmatic. Each time I left, I expected to return to an empty flat. She never revealed her name, why she chopped off her hair that first night, or who had hurt her. I returned one afternoon to find her toweling dry a grey striped kitten. She said it had been scratching the tin milk box outside. The clever girl had also cleaned, pressed, and folded my laundry, and fashioned a litter box from the lid of a packing crate. Her eyes sparkled with an eloquence of pride and accomplishment. In just a week, this vulnerable, frightened girl was exhibiting confidence and projecting a sublime composure. I didn’t tell how much I disliked cats.
When the girl stated she was leaving, she tried to explain the purpose of her rambles, but revealed only bafflement of her need to resume the perilous journey and quest. What she didn’t say was similar to the effect Brassai achieved in his shadowy photos of Parisian streetwalkers—it left me with a profound curiosity to know what remained obscured.
We sat for a time in the open convertible, parked near the intersection where she’d asked me to drop her. Then she stood outside the car, stroking the cat, looking towards and beyond me—into the chthonic night. I brought the camera to eye level, fiddled with the lens, and took her picture. She gruffly handed the kitten to me, and raced across the road and into the darkness.
My photography puts me in the fray; it’s up close and personal, an unflinching snapshot of the reality of an action, emotion, or situation. I thought in that instant I’d captured a glimpse of what she kept hidden. But when I developed the photo, I saw her utter disillusionment. In a single click, I went from rescuer to blatant opportunist and fiend. I had done something sinister in fixing her image forever in print.
For more than 50 years I claimed I didn’t know the girl; I chanced upon her and impulsively tried to permanently place her in a moment in time. That is only partially true; I came to understand she was not just a runaway. She was Freedom’s child, a sentient being with a purity of purpose. Did she transcend all obstacles? Or is she still out there wandering, wondering? London lass, what did you discover? Forgive my intrusion on your privacy and set an old man’s mind at ease; please reply c/o the Magnum Photo Agency.
# # # #
Proposal Developer & Professional Writer
Knoxville/Loudon, TN 37774