118. “I found my Ghost Cat in a Nashville riot…”


In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty photographer Sean O’Connell is hunting a photograph of the snow leopard. When the leopard appears O’Connell doesn’t take the picture. Mitty asks why? O’Connell says,“Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment…” He says, “They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. Never let’s itself be seen… Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

Yesterday I photographed the march and protest in Nashville. As is my custom I didn’t take many photographs of the things my fellow photojournalists seek–the painted signs, violence, and fire. You can’t learn anything from slogans and signs. Or fire. You can only learn from meeting people–and it’s the quiet parts of people that speak the loudest. 

The rally and march were mostly peaceful. But eventually the trouble started. When the march arrived at the Central Police Precinct some brought out spray paint and rocks. 

Rich was a shirtless provocateur with a pink back pack. He had war in his eyes. He was hunting. I followed him.

Rich stopped to wait on a corner and sat against a concrete barrier. Alone.

I introduced myself and extended my hand. He looked at me with suspicion. But my hand was hanging in front of him so he took it and we shook.

I said, “I have a theory. Tell me what you think of my theory.” I said I feel Nashville is almost too nice of a city to burn itself down, even as some are trying to do it. I said I suspect even the instigators for the most part are proud of the good temper of the city of Nashville.

Rich smiled and his eyes lightened like I had discovered a secret he knew. He said, “Yeah, man. It’s true.” And he talked about the city with affection. 

I asked what part of Nashville he is from. “South. But I have lived all over. East, North,” he said. Then he added, “I have never lived anywhere more than a year.” His eyes darkened when he said it and he saw that I saw and his shoulders slumped slightly. 

And there it was, that quiet thing, a glowing clue.

I looked at him and I thought, of course Rich is on the street. Of course he wants to paint a wall and yell at somebody. Maybe he is even scared of what a policeman might do to him some day. In some far off way he is probably angry about George Floyd. But mostly Rich is a young man alone in Nashville cut off from the possibility of the prosperity and security surrounding him. 

When he said his name, “Rich,” I responded with, “Are you?” He thought for a second then got the joke and laughed. “No, man. Not at all!”

Rich is not sharing in the wealth of Nashville. And maybe that’s really why he is out here on the street. Having a look around. Throwing a rock at a thing he can’t have–or he thinks he has no privilege even to seek.

This is not to say vandals are all like Rich. Black clad in their ski masks some are making trouble because they like chaos. And it’s the whole city of Nashville that suffers.

But Rich doesn’t wear a mask. He isn’t hiding. And though he may be painting walls this isn’t the part of him doing the talking. It’s the quiet part of him that is speaking. The part no one bothers to ask him about. His quiet self hidden beneath a cascade of slogans and graffiti. And maybe even he doesn’t yet know it because that part of him is not seeking attention.

I thought of O’Connell’s words in the movie: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

I didn’t take Rich’s photo. I didn’t want that barrier between us. 

Yesterday Rich became my ghost cat. 

In lieu of a photograph of Rich here is a photograph from my journal taken July 2019 at Mount Carmel Church day camp in North Nashville.  

Follow the story