Sunday, February 28, 2010

Face Spotter

Face Spotter, Copyright © 2010, all rights reserved, by Ken West

The old man’s face startled me. His eyes radiated the peculiar dignity of the oppressed. They were dark with weariness, resignation, pathos—and a spark of rebellion. I walked past him on the city street. He went in the other direction, toward the bus stop. I turned.

“Excuse me, sir,” I shouted.

He kept walking, paying no attention. I caught up to him, tapping lightly on his bony shoulder. “Excuse me,” I said.

He wore a wilted white shirt and old brown pants, but his shoes were spit-shined. He turned, in no hurry to find out who wanted him.

“Sir, could I take your photograph?” I asked.

He eyed my 35-millimeter camera and assorted camera bags. “Why do you want my picture?”

“I’m a photographer. I noticed you as you walked by. You have a very expressive face.”

He looked at me as if I spoke a strange language. “Why should I let you take my picture?”

I knew his face was a prizewinner with its strong features and endless depths of suffering. I was determined to get it. “I’ll pay,” I said.

“How much?”

My fingers reached for the folded five-dollar bill I had ready in my pocket, but I changed my mind. I pulled out my wallet, grabbing a twenty to silence any objections. I held it up for him to see.

“No pictures today,” he said, turning to walk away.

I had my counteroffer ready. “I’ll give you 50 dollars if you let me take your photo and sign a model release.”

Now I was talking a familiar language. His dark face and luminous eyes brightened. I’d made my fortune spotting faces like his—faces with universal appeal and money making potential.

“Hundred dollars,” he said.

I’d found his price. I handed him a pen and the model re-lease that gave me full rights to his image. I could already see his face looking down from billboards.

“Show me the money,” he said.

People waiting for the bus listened to our conversation and watched as I handed the guy a $100 bill. Without reading the form, he bent down, using the rough top of a concrete barrier as a desk. He signed his name. “OK, son, take your pictures. I’ve got a bus to catch.”

I shot quickly, making sure to get the city skyline as background. Zooming in, I got him smiling, frowning, and looking oppressed. I thanked him for being a great model and gathered up my stuff. As I turned to leave, the man’s face had changed. People waiting for the bus kept telling him he was getting ripped off.

“I changed my mind,” he said. “Here’s your hundred bucks. Give me that paper I signed.”

“Sorry, it’s too late.”

“I know my rights.”

He held out the $100 bill in my direction. Some street kid suddenly grabbed the bill from the old man and took off. No one tried to catch him. I was out $100, but it didn’t bother me much. The guy’s face would make me a bundle.

The old man didn’t back down. “Give me back the paper I signed.”

Even worse, his bus mates were scowling at me. A big guy with angry scars on his face started pounding his fist into his hand. I pulled the model release from my case, took a good look at it, and handed it back. The old man ripped it up and tossed it into an overflowing barrel.

“I want the film,” he said.

“Sorry, digital cameras don’t use film.”

“I know about cameras—you can erase pictures.”

I was still mesmerized by the man’s face. Wished I could have gotten shots of him being so angry.

“Listen, I can’t use those photos unless you sign another model release, but I took them on my time, with my camera. Here’s my card. Give me a call and we’ll work out a deal so you can make some good money. Think about it.”

“I’ll keep my face,” he said, but took my business card.

The bus arrived, screeching to a stop. Passengers got off and others got on. The old man winked at me, turned, and climbed onto the crowded bus.

Later, I forged his signature on a model release. Wasn’t a problem—I’ve got a photographic memory. Figured if he tried to sue, I’d pay him off with a lump sum.

Things eventually turned more complicated. First, I signed an advertising deal that put his face on billboards all over the country. Then, advertisers couldn’t seem to get enough of it. I hit the jackpot with a mega-deal to plaster his face across the media capitals of the world. Everything was humming along nicely until he showed up one day at my studio with the fist-smacking guy from the bus stop.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“You know what you can do.”

“OK, how much do you want?”

“Just what’s coming to me. When I see myself staring down from billboards, I think I’m due some serious cash.”

“Come in,” I said, “but leave your friend outside.”

“This is my business associate,” he said, pointing to the big guy.

I let them in.

Things haven’t worked out too badly. His face still makes piles of money. I’m his exclusive photographer. He even gives me a ten percent commission.

The weariness, resignation, and pathos are gone, but that spark of rebellion is still in his eyes. It’s what makes his face a winner.

Ken West, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, is president of Better Grip Media LLC and author of Get What You Want! Workbook… available worldwide on and other online booksellers. In the U.S. at

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