Russell and the kebab van, a modern parable of success and failure.

Keen observers of this blog may have noted that we are moving out of our house while we renovate. One thing I wanted to do before we moved out was to take some photos of various Preston landmarks and institutions as a bit of a keepsake. I had a mental list of photos I wanted, but one was of Russell the Big Issue vendor at the Preston Market who I buy my magazines from…and the other was Haci’s Kebabs, a kebab van set up opposite McDonald’s on the corner of Bell St. and St. George’s Rd. As it turned out, my attempts at getting these photos met with very different results…but I did learn quite a bit.

Russell

If you have ever been to the Preston Market on a Saturday, you would most likely have seen Russell. He sets up shop just near the entrance to the deli area, and has a steady stream of regulars. He is a genuinely amazing person. He’s worked with Brando, met the real ‘Red Dog’, has excellent musical taste…and regularly heads down to Apollo Bay (and Johanna if the surf’s good). He’s cheerful, energetic, always chats with the kids when we see him…and doesn’t complain too bitterly when they take the magazine but refuse to hand over the money.
However, at what point do you ask someone who you only really know through a weekly conversation that you’d like to take a photo of them? Do you just rock up with the camera one morning and spring it on them? Do you plan it out in advance? What if they say ‘no’? In the interests of not creating a scene…and having a 6 month period when I wouldn’t see him (while the renovations are being done and my Preston Market visits are curtailed) so that if he said ‘no’ there wouldn’t be awkwardness. I chose to ask him the week before we moved out if it would be ok to take the photo on the following week. He said ‘yes’, and so the following week I took my camera (and my new 50mm lens) with me to the market.
I’ve taken plenty of photos of relative strangers for work…and that’s been fine, because that wasn’t being done for me. It was for an event, or a work video, or for them to take home…but this was the first time I had asked a relative stranger to give up some of their own time so that I could take a photo of them…and I won’t lie I was very nervous. But Russell was of course the consummate professional, and when I finally got to look at the photos on a decent screen (3 days later as a result of moving house), and had a play in Lightroom, I was absolutely rapt with the results.

 

┬áHaci’s kebabs

On the way to take my photos of Russell I saw this ice-cream van in the car park

I had the camera so I took a quick photo, but I had my heart set on another fast food van; the Haci’s Kebabs van. For those not familiar with Haci’s, it’s a relatively unremarkable take away kebab van located on the corner of St. George’s Rd and Bell St. What makes it remarkable is that it is set up across the road from a 24 hour McDonalds. Of all the places to set up a fast food van, why would you set it up across the road from the only McDonalds in miles? Surely there’s no way it could survive. But it does. In fact when coming home from work late at night when I first moved into Preston, there was always a bit of a crowd around the van. When I walked our kids along St. Georges Rd to get them to sleep in the dead of the night…there were always a few people there enjoying a late night feed.
So when I was thinking of Preston landmarks to take a photo of, Haci’s had to be on the list. In my mind I thought of a long exposure shot at night of the van all lit up and a few people standing around having kebabs. It was nothing original…but it was going to be a good shot. All I had to do was get down there and take the shot. But in the week leading up to our big move, I simply didn’t have a chance to get down there. Then suddenly Saturday was upon us, and it was the last night we would be in Preston. If I was going to get the shot it would have to be tonight. So having spent all day moving house, at 10pm I grabbed my tripod and camera, and with my 10 month old sleeping in our baby carrier on my back, I trekked down to Haci’s.
When I got there I went up to the van to make sure it was OK to take the photo and said “Hey do you mind if I just take a photo, I’m just…” but before I could even finish the guy behind the counter said “Yeah, we mind.” And with that, I realised that the photo I had in my mind was going to have to stay there. It never even occurred to me that they wouldn’t want me to take a photo, and I’ve got to admit I was devastated…and not a little pissed off. As a few photographers told me after the event, I would have been totally within my rights to take the photo from the footpath. But I really wanted these photos to demonstrate a sense of pride in my suburb and the people who live there, and taking photos of people who had already said they didn’t want photos taken was going against this. Plus, I got the feeling that if I did try something like this, I would have found my tripod inserted somewhere painful.

So what have I learned from this? Well, it always pays to check with your subject before you take a photo. A brilliant photo in your mind, remains just that unless you actually get the shot. But most of all, if you ever have $5 in your pocket…buy a Big Issue from Russell and not a kebab from Haci’s, it’s a much better investment.