Each week I will be asking a mobile photographer to choose the one image of theirs that they are most proud of. It does not have to be their best, or the one that has received the most recognition, just the one image that they are more emotionally connected with than any other.

This week’s artist is Ryan Vaarsi

The first thing I noticed when I saw Ryan’s work was how well he captured real life. The shot could be someone waiting on a street corner in Westlake or a guy living rough on Venice Beach but wherever they are taken, the framing and balance of his images put you right there, inside a part of Los Angeles that many of us would never know exists.

The Photo I Am Most Proud Of: Ryan Vaarsi

Elbert by Ryan Vaarsi

Elbert, Los Angeles, iPhone 4s

Most of the street photos I’ve taken are opportunistic. I happen upon something intriguing and snap away. On occasion I’ll stake out a spot or some interesting bit of light and wait for things to happen, but the majority of the photos I take are the result of happenstance.

That’s rewarding, challenging and just plain fun, but there are times when I want to go deeper. Find out why someone is living on the street or why they’re bellowing at the top of their lungs about the rewards of joining the Church of the Worthless Miracle. The guy wearing the clown costume, smoking a cigarette outside of Jody Maroni’s Sausage Kingdom on the Venice boardwalk–surely he has a story to tell.

But there’s this gap I struggle to bridge. A peculiar social distance that I can’t easily traverse. The notion of walking up to complete strangers and striking up a conversation is daunting. Asking to photograph them, all the more so.

This photo represents the first time I believe that I was able to really bridge that gap.

Elbert is 73, an ex-con, originally from Detroit. I met him early one Sunday morning on a corner in downtown LA. I was there taking part in a workshop put together by the founders of the 24-Hour Project and was wandering the streets in the company of Robert Stacy, an accomplished photographer from whom I hoped to glean some wisdom.

It was around 7 in the morning. Elbert was at the corner of 6th and Broadway, passing out hand-scrawled fliers espousing a belief system that seems like a highly customized version of Islam. Robert and I stopped and spoke with him for 10 or 15 minutes. He’s a voluble, approachable man who declaimed at length about his life, his spiritual beliefs and his feelings as regards property taxes (he’s not a fan). Robert and I each took several photos while we spoke to Elbert.

He described his time in jail and his life in the Detroit ghettos. He moved to LA as a younger man, but left after an earthquake or two in the 70s. He eventually decided that being broke was easier in LA. Or warmer, at any rate.

As Elbert spoke, Robert and I snapped away. I used the native camera app in my iPhone 4s and kept my edits very minimal. I used Snapseed to convert it to black-and-white, sharpen it a bit and add a touch of contrast. I also cropped it slightly to emphasize his hands. I wanted to highlight his animation, try and bring through some hint of the conversation’s energy.

This was the first time as a street photographer that I was able to connect with my subject in a way that felt genuine. It was not the drive-by photography I tend to practice, quite the opposite really. I shook Elbert’s hand, learned his name and told him mine. We made each other laugh and we exchanged tales. It was a Connection. I’ve always felt a pull toward documentary or journalistic styles of photography. This was the first time I felt like I was close to practicing it.

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