I was idling at Caffe Fiore in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle the other day, writing an article and enjoying being out of the house. Most of the tables there are long and communal, and like most modern coffee shops, frequently occupied by folks like me tapping on computers or iPads.
A woman approached. “Mind if I share your table?”
“Of course not,” I said as she sat opposite me. My table–our table, now–was long enough to fit four people, and I assumed she would occupy the empty space to the left. Instead, she opened her laptop directly across from me.
She was unexpectedly attractive: Early twenties, cream-colored skin, long red hair that spilled from a thrift-store-hip fuzzy hood that she never removed. A small nose piercing: two light blue stones connected to a thin rod through the flesh between her nostrils. And, when the jacket shifted at her neck and arms, evidence of multiple monochrome tattoos.
My face was flush. The portion of me that will always be linked to my younger self came forward in my consciousness. An attractive girl is nearby: freeze.
I turned my attention back to my laptop, but the sudden onset of fog in my brain prevented me from adding anything useful to my article for several minutes.
She typed on her laptop, angled it away from the rest of the cafe. Probably a Facebook chat or some other direct communication with a friend. Occasionally she chuckled.
Not wanting to be rude, I kept my head down and tried not to stare, but I did look up when she casually began braiding a long rope of that auburn hair.
And then she peered out the window.
Most people would look outside and offer a resigned sigh at the dreary gray Seattle weather, but photographically the light was fantastic. I saw the photo in my mind, highlights tickling the micro spikes of the hood’s fur, catchlight dancing in her eyes, the earthy oranges and browns of the cafe’s interior adding warmth to the scene.
All I had to do was ask. And that stopped me cold.
We were sharing the same space–almost literally, the lid of her laptop occasionally tapping mine as she frequently adjusted its position. Our “relationship” so far was cordial, she asking permission to share the space and I granting it. But I didn’t know how to make the request.
“Hi, I’m a photographer and I couldn’t help but notice the light looks really great on you. Would you mind if I took a few pictures of you looking out the window like that again?”
That’s probably exactly what I should have said. But just like being 14 again, imagining a conversation and actually starting one felt like an impossible leap. I didn’t know if it would seem rude to ask, or weird that this 41-year-old guy in a cafe is asking a young woman to take her picture. Would I come off as a lecherous jerk with a digital camera?
I won’t know. I couldn’t build the courage to ask before it was time for me to leave.
When I consider the courage it takes to be a photographer, I rightly think of what’s required to be a photojournalist in war zones or other difficult situations. Or, the persistence to brave inclement weather and wait for hours to grab an elusive shot.
But courage, I need to remind myself, is also the act of speaking up, of asking a polite question in the moment. I wasn’t afraid of the answer. She might have said yes, she could have said no. Instead, I missed a series of great shots because I was afraid of the asking.
The next time this happens–and there will be a next time–I need to push that hesitation back down into my gut and speak up. I’ll have some photo cards with me to provide at least a little proof that I’m not a nut. And I’ll do the courageous thing: ask.
Jeff is a contributor to PET, and author of Photoshop Elements 10 for Windows and Mac OS X: Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2011).