Why I Take Pictures for Portland Story Theater

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She pauses; arms stretched upwards imitating the height of her lover. The audience is silent with bated breath, entranced. For a moment it seems her presence leaves the stage, for a moment she is standing before the man she has been speaking about. The man she has described so lovingly in her story. A moment in time. My finger presses the button and the moment is captured. The pause ends, her presence returns to the stage and she continues with her story, my eye pressed to the view finder of my camera.

Lynne Fitch - photo by Scott Bump

Lynne Fitch, telling “Heeding the Call of My Heart”, Urban Tellers, December 2015. Photo by Scott Bump.

These are real stories. They are real experiences told by every day people coming from an honest and vulnerable place. There are no fictional representations, no metaphors, just life lived. Each has spent a month crafting the story culminating to this time in front of fellow human beings sharing their tale.

The Portland Story Theater stage does not have a “fourth wall”. The teller speaks directly to the audience and the audience responds. There is a give and take between them, an ebb and flow. Watching a teller take in, even subtly, the audience reaction to their story is a special and revealing moment. Laughter can happen at the most unexpected times. So can silence, or murmurs of recognition and agreement. All of these can feed the teller’s confidence that their story is being heard. Each is a recognition of the connection between the teller, the story, and the listener. These are the moments I live for as a photographer.

Frank Engel - Photo by Scott Bump

Frank Engel telling “High in the Pyrenees” , Urban Tellers, December 2015. Photo by Scott Bump.

I told my first story with Portland Story Theater in February of 2012. I started taking pictures for them their very next performance. In total, I’ve taken the stage four times myself. I know how long the process takes. How much time and care is given. I understand the nervousness when you are about to tell your truth. I know how lonely the stage feels at first, and how slowly, as your story unfolds, you draw the crowd in until the entire experience envelops all of you. And I know how, when you come to the end, it feels as if you’ve simply shared time with hundreds of friends.

At first, behind the camera, I felt like a voyeur preying on intimate moments. An intruder inserting myself between the performer and the audience. The sound of my camera betraying the intimacy, the click of the shutter ricocheting throughout the theater. I’ve come to recognize this is not the truth.

Mayah Frank - Photo by Scott Bump

Mayah Frank, telling “It’s Only Water”, Urban Tellers, December 2015. Photo by Scott Bump.

As the photographer, I may be the most connected of anyone present. I have listened to hundreds of stories. It may seem by now the act of taking pictures would be automatic, by rote, or second nature. And that would be true if I were only taking pictures. But the responsibility of capturing moments means I pay attention, entirely, to each story. It means I am in tune with the performer and their audience. I have found the moments worth capturing come at the most unexpected times. As a result, I am always present, I am always listening, I am always ready.

When all is said and done, maybe people won’t see these pictures the way I see them. Maybe the image won’t be as clear or as intimate to others as they are for me. But in that instant when my eyes recognize, my finger presses, and my camera captures, I am connected with the teller and their story. In that moment I know I have done my part to honor their vulnerability and their truth. In turn, this is my truth and this is why I keep coming back.

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