by Leanne Hundley
April 2009

“Whatever you do, be passionate about it,” my father told me while I drove the family car down Jefferson Avenue. “You’ll have plenty of time to be burnt out later.”

We had come to Jefferson street so I could practice driving with real traffic, something not often seen in my quaint, rural town.  I immediately understood that my father’s warning about feeling “burnt out” did not come without reason.  My father has worked at Farmers’ Service and Concrete Company for 40 years, since he was 15, taking over where my grandfather left off.  The small, southern store specializes in hunting and work apparel, concrete pours, fertilizers, hardware supplies, and even kittens from time to time.  My father works six days a week, twelve hours a day.  Since the owner and his wife frequently leave for somewhere exotic, my father keeps things running.  I don’t know if he ever felt passionate about “the store” (as it is called in my family) or if he now feels “burnt out.”  But I understood during that drive that his life could guide mine.

Months later, as I stand in front of Paul Vathis’s photo, “Two Men with a Problem,” I find myself thinking back to that drive on Jefferson Street.  After browsing the other gruesome Pulitzer prize-winning photographs at the Newseum, I embrace the serenity of Vathis’s photograph. Its simplistic composition draws me in: the sparse trees, the two men in suits walking with their backs to the camera, the rustic cabin offset in the background.  Its quietness causes me to look closer.

The photograph shows a father and his grown son walking alone through the woods.  They make their way down a cobblestone walkway to a small cabin.  The tall, slender son walks with a certain stiffness.  His father walks next to him holding a fedora behind his back.  They both walk with their heads down, their attention focused elsewhere.  Both men’s postures and lack of hand motions imply their conversation is serious.

After taking a closer look at the photo, I begin to see the real picture.  The son, clearly troubled, expresses his anxiety to his father in hopes of receiving some paternal wisdom.  As his more relaxed gait implies, the father patiently absorbs his son’s concerns.

The father and son, both sharply dressed in tailored suits, did not come to this location by chance.  The contrast between their business attire and the raw setting of the woods proves they are far away from where their walk began.  Before heading out of town, I expect they met for coffee at their usual downtown diner.  Here, no contrast exists between the two men and their surroundings; their waitress serves men in corporate attire everyday.  But this crowded, urban atmosphere was not the place to discuss serious matters.  The father and son, therefore, deliberately chose this secluded spot in the woods in order to talk alone.  Only by chance was Vathis there to document it.

The son had recently landed what he considered the ideal job—big firm, private office, name on the door, and the potential to make a difference.  Only now he begins to realize the amount of time it will take to make such a difference.  He asks his father if men are supposed to be “settled” for life by his age.  “I don’t want to end up looking back on my life and thinking ‘If only…,’ but I feel like leaving the firm is too big of a risk right now.”

I imagine after Vathis took this shot, the pair continued down the walkway, ultimately reaching the cabin.

Here, the father offers guidance that grows out of the difficulties he experienced in his own life.  “You feel like it’s you against the world right now, don’t ya son?  And who told you that was wrong to feel?  It most certainly wasn’t me,” he says as he lays a reassuring hand on his son’s shoulder.  The son is startled by his father’s abrupt tone.  “When your mother and I were your age, we took risks.  We moved to a town where we knew no one.  And if there were jobs, the positions were ‘already filled.’  I knew people weren’t going to hire some no-name unless I proved myself.  Your mother’s faith in me was motivation enough to arrive at job sites an hour and a half earlier than everyone else.  People noticed after a while, and it wasn’t long until I found steady work.” he said.  The son no longer looks startled.  After listening to his father’s description of his life, his own life seems less confusing.

Vathis’s photograph represents a universal tradition of fathers passing their wealth onto their children.  In “Two Men with a Problem,” the father’s life experiences serve as his son’s inheritance.  This kind of wealth will enable him to prevail through life’s uncertainties.

While witnessing the story of Vathis’s photograph, I think of my own father, coincidently standing a few pictures down from me in the exhibit.

Works Cited

Vathis, Paul. “Two Men with a Problem.” 1961. Newseum, Washington DC.

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