The decisive moment.

Photographers are witnesses to………………..well to be perfectly honest I’m often not quite sure. Are you?

You might think you are recording ‘the truth’ but all you are recording is a moment, one single piece of the bigger picture. And sometimes that ‘moment’ might seem to be the reality of the situation, the one you take away and which defines that experience for you and for others, but which is in fact wildly inaccurate.  So, I’ll let you into a secret…..the real decisive moment, the most important one, is the moment when you decide to leave a ‘situation’, or to stay and see what else happpens…that moment, more than any other, may decide what the true ‘reality’ of your experience will be, and the memory and images you take away from it.

I like people. And I like the stories people have to tell. My friend Tam is a great observer of life, and he tells very very good stories. Tam was traveling in Botswana once, with a young (well connected) Motswana lad he knew. Word arrived that a close relative, a local chief, had died and that Tam was invited to attend the funeral. So off they went in the sweltering heat, driving for hours through the bush. Arriving at a remote village, dusty, thirsty and tired they were met by a village elder, and words were spoken which Tam did not understand, but it was clear that he (Tam) was the subject of the conversation. Tam’s companion walked off towards some huts, and the elder led Tam by the hand through the village, towards some other huts. Outside one he stopped, motioned for Tam to stop, pulled back a door and peeped inside, satisfying himself that whatever was inside was ok, he ushered Tam in and motioned for him to sit, then left.

As Tam’s eyes adjusted to the gloom after the searing tropical sun outside, he saw that he was facing a raised platform on which lay the unmistakable shape of a body, covered with a white sheet. Tam was astonished. He was also very very thirsty. He sat and looked, and wondered, his head swimming,“Wow, this must be some form of celebration for the dead chief, and as a visitor I’m being honoured by being allowed into his presence“. The thought “Should I take a picture” fleetingly crossed his mind, but was dismissed as probably not a good idea. Thirty minutes passed, the thirst increased. Tam shuffled on the dirt floor. “Should I leave”?  he wondered, “Would that be an insult?” he worried. Another thirty minutes crawled past, easily overtaken by several ants that were quickly working their way up the hut wall. The thirst was becoming unbearable and his head spinning, vision starting to play tricks on him….“the sheet is moving…naw can’t be” and he strained to determine what was going on. Suddenly, and to Tam’s astonishment, the sheet was thrown off and the figure stood up and stretched, then noticed Tam and bade him hello, and walked out of the hut!

Perplexed, Tam followed, and was instantly blinded by the fierce sun. Staggering around sightless and light-headed with thirst he was grabbed by his companion who laughed and joked that he’d wondered where Tam had got to. Turned out Tam had been put in a spare hut to cool down with another elder who was having a sleep under a mosquito net, and in the excitement of their arrival, he’d been forgotten about whilst everyone else had cool drinks!

As Tam recalls….“if I’d left the hut earlier I’d have come home with a cool story about a ‘dead chief under a shroud’ and being given this amazing honour…..but by staying there I’d realised the truth, that I was simply sitting in a shed with a bloke sleeping under a sheet! “

My own experience was a little more troubling. Traveling in New Mexico on a motorcycle I was flagged down by a huge grey pickup truck which pulled in sharply in front of me. I had no choice, and had to stop. The door opened and a VERY large man stepped out, the truck suspension rocking as he did so. There was a hint of drink in the air as he spoke: “Saw your flag. You Scottish?” said the fellow, very obviously a Native American. “Er….um….well, yes, I am” I replied nervously and was immediately offered a giant muscular hand. As we shook he introduced himself, “My name is Chissoe Iron. Want to see some buffalo?” he asked. “Well yes, but where?” and so he simply said “follow me” and jumped back into his truck and took off. I followed and we drove into a small town and he headed straight for the drive-through liquor store and threw a case of beer in the back of his pickup.

Big man, big truck. Chissoe on the range © John MacPherson

Ok I’m thinking, whats going on, I’m following a total stranger who appears to have had a few beers and now we’re buying more and going to……see buffalo? Is this some plot to mug a stupid tourist? Chissoe shouted towards me “ We can’t take that little bike with us – too rough on the range – we need to leave it somewhere”.  Now I’m getting alarmed. “Is there a team of them working this scam?” I thought to myself “One gets me to dump the bike, the others grab it and make off with it, and I end up disappearing in the boondocks”. He took off again. I followed. And then there was a moment, one of real doubt about what was going on, and I wondered quite seriously whether I should just swerve round him and take off down the highway…. will I, wont I, will I, wont I…..and almost did….but….didn’t. And suddenly he pulled into a Police Station. He jumped out “Ok John park it there beside the squad car, I’ll tell the boys to watch your bike and gear while we’re away” and he disappeared inside. Well, I thought, if this is an elaborate plot to mug me it’s pretty epic. Then Chissoe emerged and seeing the perplexed expression on my face laughed and said “Ha, it’s ok. I’m a policeman!

To cut a long beer-fuelled story short, we spent the rest of the day and into early evening far out on the range with a large group of buffalo, Chissoe knocking back copious quantities of beer, whilst a Native American group singing ‘The Beatles Greatest Hits’ to incessant drumbeats, played on the truck tape player. She..boom boom boom ..loves….boom boom….you….boom boom boom…you…boom boom….yeah..yeah…yeah…..

Chissoe tells me another story. © John MacPherson


Chissoe talked passionately about buffalo, their significance, his Indian life, being a policeman, and of course The Beatles. And surprised me with the fact that his grandmother was a McGregor, “scots-irish, from the old country!” as he put it, and relishing the astonishment on my face! I stared off towards the distant mountains and reflected on the fact that had I followed my initial fears and allowed suspicion to prevail, I’d have a story about how I ‘almost’ got mugged and my motorbike and all my gear stolen, all of it wildly inaccurate nonsense. But by taking the ‘risk’, and at the ‘decisive moment’ saying ‘yes’, here I was with far more than just a story, experiencing a wonderful personal interaction, gaining an insight into another person’s life and culture, and enriching my own life immeasurably.

Decisive moments don’t just define your pictures, they define the richness of your life.

Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Catherine says:

    How come you manage to lead such an adventurous life?! Where am I going wrong?

  2. Ha Catherine! It was a ‘wasted’ youth!! And I’m older now. And wiser. Because I wasted my youth this way 🙂

  3. Great story John, I know the feeling you describe and have had the same type of adventures.

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