‘Normal Among Friends’

Swiss photographer Thomas Leuthard tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures from Armenia.

By / April 2012

Of our group of four city-weary photographers, I had my doubts when the taxi dropped us off in the quiet countryside a few miles from Yerevan [the capital of Armenia]. I was sure it would be a boring day with a lot of walking and no good photos.

Then we met Hayk. The old farmer sat in the shade of a giant willow tree on the edge of a small village watching cattle and smoking a cigarette. Although we were strangers, dressed like American tourists with imposing cameras strapped across our shoulders, he welcomed us like old friends and started pouring out vodka as generously as he did stories.

The vodka burned my throat and made my head drift like a balloon on a string. I never drink. I don’t like the taste. But there are days when you cannot say no, as it would be rude. I knew drinking vodka was normal among friends in the region. So I drank about seven glasses, trying before each of them to prevent the old farmer from filling it full.

Thomas Leuthard, 40, has published three ebooks of street photography.

The stories drifted back 35 years to his service as a musician with the Soviet army in Eastern Germany. I took a picture when he showed us a “DDR” tattoo on his left wrist and again when he pulled back his sleeve to reveal a plum-shaped protrusion on his right bicep, which came from an arm wrestling mishap.

I took more pictures when he pulled out a tattered scrapbook with a golden hammer and sickle stamped on the cover and again when he whisked out a soft, squeaky tune on the accordion.

I can’t really remember Hayk’s voice. He spoke Armenian and only one in our group understood him. What stands out in my memory is his face. A face with a smile more gold than pearl. A face with wrinkles as contoured as windswept sand dunes. A face with an enthusiasm for life and not bound to pretense.

Hayk’s face is interesting, not because it’s polished and perfect but because it reveals somebody who is different from the rest of the people we had been photographing on the crowded streets of Yerevan and from the beautiful people you see everyday in the magazines.

I don’t like to make pictures of young people or pristine people. I want to take pictures of people you don’t see everywhere.

My pursuit of this kind photography started as a solitary one four years ago. I was bored and alone in a hotel room, reading a computer magazine when I decided to purchase a Nikon D40 that I saw advertised. And I was alone when I took my new toy to the streets a few weeks later.

Now I find people to shoot with almost everywhere I go. In some cases we are complete strangers. Yet, when it comes to street photography, we are fully connected. Our feet cover the same concrete sidewalks. Our lips espouse the same unfettered passion. Our eyes survey the same urban landscapes.

In some instances, the photos aren’t even the highlight. What the four photographers and the old farmer had was spontaneous, authentic, and probably a little goofy. No one expected to end up there eating and drinking, sharing in one of the most genuine afternoons of our week-long trip. You could never buy that experience for any amount of money.


— as told to Brandon Hoops