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The man on the headland

January 19, 2015  •  16 Comments

Looking out of the bedroom window, the photographer assessed prospects for the morning walk. Dooragan―the mountain dominating the southern horizon―was emerging more slowly than usual from the darkness despite the impending dawn: the coastline was sleeping in under a grey stratus blanket. Sunrise, due in 30 minutes, was unlikely to kiss Dooragan's summit this day. The photographer tossed a mental coin.

"Will I take the big camera?" He pressed the tip of his nose against the gauze, feeling the cooler air outside, and listened. "Mmm, the sea's not doing much."  

There was nothing to whet his appetite; no sound of heavy surf dumping on Lighthouse Beach; only a murmur carried on the breeze.  He stretched and grimaced, his shoulders reminding him of tendons he'd damaged during a recent camping trip by lifting heavy firewood without regard for his years and fitness. Acceptance that his body no longer had the recuperative capacity of his youth was coming slowly. Carrying the big camera and a four kilo tripod on his walks during the last week hadn't helped.

He contemplated walking without the encumbrance of a camera at all, musing that there was unlikely to be anything of interest anyway. "But you never know, do you?", said an inner voice. "Yeah, yeah, I know, what's my own comfort got to do with it? OK, I'll take the little camera". The inner voice answered its own question.

The walk through the neighbourhood was attended by familiar sounds: magpies chortling in the new day; grey butcherbirds exulting with their own version of kookaburra laughter; noisy miners chorusing in the eucalypts; and the funereal cries of yellow-tailed black cockatoos doing the rounds of local banksias and casuarinas for their nutty breakfast. The photographer walked briskly, appreciating the gentle pull of the small camera slung on his aching shoulder.

After twenty minutes, two kilometres were behind him and he was on the saddle between the final hill and Tacking Point. He looked south to Watonga Rocks, taking in the ragged wash of surf dissolving into the curve of the beach, and beyond where the heavy salt air all but obscured Grant's Head, Perpendicular Point and Dooragan. For a moment he regretted leaving the big gear behind, visualising what could be made of the scene with the benefit of a rock-like tripod and slow exposures. "Too bad! Work with what you have. That's an order."

He paused at the car park below the lighthouse and scanned the scene. "What haven't I paid much attention to in the past?"

Foundations of lighthouse keeper's cottage"They didn't move him...not like the silhouette of a man sitting on the park bench just north of the light..."

In the eye of the ring road, the vestiges of the foundations of the lighthouse keeper's cottage suggested themselves. Maybe they'd make a good foreground for the lighthouse becoming backlit by sunrise diffused through clouds. He made a few desultory exposures, dismissing them as nothing more than going through the motions. They didn't move him...not like the silhouette of a man sitting on the park bench just north of the light, facing the ocean, facing the new day. The bench, its legs and those of the man were skylined on the crown of the headland. "Strange", the photographer thought, "he's wearing a hoodie. It's not cold. It's so good to feel this fresh air after such a spell of oppressive heat. That bloke must be a frog! Mmmm...reminds me of the Grim Reaper". An idea germinated.

Then the photographer noticed the tassled fringe of a rug flapping in the breeze, between the seat and the ground. He concluded that the man on the seat was probably a young bloke seeing in the day with his sweetheart. She wasn't visible; probably lying on the rug on the seat with her head in his lap. It wasn't unusual to see young people on the headland at sunrise sharing the comfort of a blanket.

Paying for motivationPaying for motivation"A bevy of bootcampers puffed up the stairs to the light and trouped across the skyline following their macho instructor." "Yeah, that's nice. What can I do with that?" Another idea flickered. The photographer shifted his position to place the man on the headland near the left edge of the frame to counterbalance the bulk of the lighthouse on the right. He noticed that the clouds were breaking up and sweeping across, and zoomed the lens out to give the enlivened sky a stronger role. He was thinking 'scale', and liked the idea of a small figure in a big landscape and that the man on the headland appeared to be communing. The heavens supported the notion. The photographer started to think of how the images might be processed. Split-toned black and white with a panoramic crop. Moody. Thought provoking.

"The light's dull. Up the ISO and turn on the image stabiliser. You don't want camera shake blur."

A bevy of bootcampers puffed up the stairs to the light and trouped across the skyline following their macho instructor. It was then that the photographer noticed a small head pop up beside the man on the headland to watch the parade. It wasn't a sweetheart's but that of a little dog, perhaps a miniature poodle. White. The bootcampers trotted past and out of the frame, leaving the little dog and its master once again to their solitude.

The photographer wondered if it was just a man and his dog or whether a sweetheart remained unseen, still lying on the seat with legs tucked up. It wasn't possible to tell from where the photographer was working the scene.

A magpie pays a visitA magpie pays a visit"The photographer imagined the magpie delivering wisdom from a lectern." A magpie landed on the headland and the dog turned its attention to the bird. The magpie flew to a sign near the seat and the photographer zoomed in to explore a tighter view, excluding the lighthouse from the composition. The photographer imagined the magpie delivering wisdom from a lectern. Then it flew away. Once more alone―the man and the little dog and...the sweetheart?

The photographer continued working the scene, zooming out again to include the lighthouse and keeping an eye on what the clouds were doing, looking for pleasing configurations in concert with the shapes on the headland.

Soon after, the man on the headland stood and gathered up the rug and placed the little dog on the ground. No sweetheart. As the man and his dog walked across the skyline toward the lighthouse and down the steps to the carpark, the photographer shot a series of images with the little camera in sequential mode <click> <click> <click> <click> <click> <click>...

Vigil overVigil over"As the man and his dog walked across the skyline...the photographer shot a series of images with the little camera in sequential mode." The photographer slung his camera across his shoulder and approached as the man placed the little dog on the front passenger seat of a car. He noticed that the man on the headland was of a similar age to himself. The man closed the car door.

"Excuse me, mate", said the photographer, "have you got a minute?". This was outside the photographer's comfort zone. He wouldn't normally approach people he had photographed from a distance. What was the point? They weren't recognisable. They might be suspicious of a profit motive. He didn't really know what had compelled him to approach the man on the headland this day, but something did.

The man on the headland paused and looked toward the photographer. He had the drawn look of a person with things weighing on his mind (the photographer felt awkward. Was this a bad idea?)

The photographer stumbled on, not waiting for an answer...

"Um...I'm a photographer and I think that I've just got some nice photographs of you and your dog. I wonder if you'd like me to send one to strings attached. I'd be happy to. Do you have an email address?"

"Oh...I suppose so", he replied. "I've been here since two o'clock". (that explains the hoodie and the rug, thought the photographer)

The man went on..."It's 12 months since my wife passed away".

The photographer felt a pang of regret at his intrusion, and aching sympathy for the man's loss.

"Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. You've come here for some reflection. It's a good place for some quiet time... (trying not to appear awkward and to keep the conversation going...with inadequate words). Do you have something to write on?"

The man on the headland went to his car's centre console, found a piece of paper and wrote on it. Against his instinct to leave the man in peace, the photographer pressed for more information.

"Do you mind me asking, what's your dog's name? It might help me to do something better with the picture".


(Hesitating) "And......your wife's name?"

"It's there", he said, pointing, and the photographer looked and saw a husband-and-wife@ email address written on the paper. Sweetheart now had a name. Empathy swelled.

"Thank you", said the photographer, calling the man on the headland by his given name. He placed his hand on the man's shoulder, and said..."You take things easy today."

The man on the headland nodded and smiled thinly, seeming appreciative of the stranger's kind gesture.

Arriving back at his house, the photographer switched on his computer, started the download, showered and made his breakfast. Later that day he sent an email, hoping that the image he had chosen to speak for the morning's encounter would be received as a welcome gift—albeit a bittersweet one—to mark an anniversary for the man on the headland and his sweetheart.

Remembering Sweetheart with PrincessRemembering Sweetheart with PrincessThe photograph sent to the man on the headland, to be followed by a complimentary print for framing if he desires one. His wife passed away 19 January 2014.

Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever... it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything." — Aaron Siskind


Ian Joyce(non-registered)
This is the first story I have read of yours Rob. Really enjoyed it. I will have to read the others now!...and subscribe! Thanks!
Tony Sullivan(non-registered)
Your story brought a tear to my eye. Your morning adventure was much more than a photographic walk, it was a journey that transcended the plethora of images that most of us take to a timeless encounter where you connected with another's humanity. Your paths were like two ships in the sea that crossed yet connected for the benefit of both and moved those of us who read your story to ponder the moment. Thanks for your work.
Thanks for your comments here, everyone: Diane, Brenda, Jane, Terry, Ruth, *Mike, Robyn, Jody, Kellie, Tom, Wayne, Tina, and Chris. And thank you to those who sent emails.

Yes, I was glad that I conquered shyness and approached the man. I haven't heard back from him since sending him an email with the photograph. Perhaps it's still too raw. I will follow up, though.

Haha, Mike. You said "Main thing is keeping fit" (in retirement). Did you Jonah me? (see the following PP edition). :-)

Kind regards to all,
Chris Prior(non-registered)
I bet you are glad you approached that gentleman.
Wayne Kirk(non-registered)
Loved it Rob..Deep, and it meant so much....
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