I am pleased to introduce you to James Otero, a native New Mexican, born and raised in Valencia. I only asked for his first name, but he made a point of giving me his last name, too. Otero is a very old family name in New Mexico; it first appears in 1659 in marriage records at Santa Fe.
I met James while power walking in a neighborhood park. I saw his hair blowing in the wind. From a distance, I couldn’t tell if he was a man or woman. As I approached, I saw he was a middle-aged fellow who was walking with a dog and a small child. Once I drew in closer, I stopped and greeted him with my first name. I explained that I was doing an interesting project and looking for strangers to photograph. As I was already acquainted with the only two other people enjoying the park, I invited him to become my ninth participant.
He agreed, but “warned me” that he didn’t look good in photographs. Whenever someone tells me that before I make my photos of them, I feel duty bound to prove them wrong!
The sun was starting to set, and while it had been overcast moments before approaching James, there was a cloud break. I hoped to work fast before the light was gone again. In New Mexico, our light changes constantly. It can be really annoying if one is outside making portraits in natural light without a scrim.
To ease James into my picture taking and get him to relax more, I asked him small talk questions. This is one of my favorite parts about encounters with strangers: because of the unexpected nuggets revealed in such short conversations.
James is from what most would consider a large family: twelve kids. He said, “I had 5 brothers and 6 sisters. It was perfect having an even number of boys and girls.” Growing up, his family business was construction. After serving in the US Marines he returned to New Mexico to “do his own thing.” He bought himself an inexpensive fixer-upper house in Carlsbad, NM. After making repairs to it and getting it livable, he sold it and moved to Albuquerque to be closer to family.
“I bought that place in Carlsbad, sight unseen. I told the real estate agent what I wanted to spend. He called me up, told me how cheap the place was, and so I couldn’t pass it up. When I moved in, it didn’t have any windows or doors. I was OK sleeping in there alone. Like being out in the open. I could handle anyone who dared to come inside. Being a Marine teaches you a few things.”
I asked if he preferred living in the southeast part of the state.
“Well, there are no mountains like up here in Albuquerque.” He said, “It seems like everywhere people live, there are trees, buildings and streets. What is noticeably different are the cultures of people who live there. When I was living near Hobbs, people were informal and friendly and would stop and have conversations with me, like we are doing now. Here in the city, people keep to themselves more. It’s harder to really know your neighbors.”
James takes care of a schnauzer named Seven, and a 2-year-old nephew who handed him a stick while we were speaking. When James addressed the child, he called him. “Mi’jo,” which is a casual conversational term in Spanish for “son.” He told me I could take his photograph with the child. I thanked him, and declined doing so. I explained that since he wasn’t the boy’s legal guardian, I didn’t feel comfortable including him. James was watching his nephew with care the entire time we were speaking. He faced the child at all times. We moved around the play area to keep the boy in his sights.
Even after James relaxed into our conversation and the child was merely steps away from us, he was never comfortable looking strait into my camera. He was fine at making strong eye contact with me when the camera wasn’t in front of my face. I’ve been unsuccessful shooting from the hip, so I made a few shots with my camera at my eye level. I paused a few times from the picture taking, and then resumed. Each time I hoped to catch him whilst looking at me, but he would avert if I raised the camera, so I settled for a side angle in this shot. It was just more natural for him, and I accepted that. He was a stranger, after all.
When I had some material to select from, I asked James how he would like me to get the image to him. He didn’t even care to see any of my results. He declined needing to get a copy.
“I don’t watch TV or care about things you find on a computer,” James told me. “I’m different from lots of other people. To thank me for watching this little one here, my sister-in-law got me tickets to see Cher in concert because she knows I really like her music. I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do with those tickets? I don’t want to see Cher in concert. Sure, I like her music, but she doesn’t care about me.’ Now if you told me it was a chance to meet Cher in person, that would have been interesting.”
We shook hands, I thanked him for joining my project, and gave him my last name before parting. Then I continued my walk with a few more laps to go.