Imagining Their Stories

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When I was reviewing and selecting my favorite city creature photos for this post, my mind kept going back to a quotation about people-watching in Found magazine’s interview of musician Willis Earl Beal:

When I’m watching people, I feel like I develop this powerful, almost God-like understanding of them. I can see deep within them. Of course, really, they’re becoming an extension of who I am. I don’t know what their story is, but imagining their stories is a way of exploring yourself.

Milkweed bug on butterfly weed in Lincoln Park, July 2014

The quote struck me as revelatory and I immediately wanted to try to apply it to photography. Willis’s idea makes sense in the context of street photography or portraiture, but I wanted to see if I could apply it to what I was working on—photos of herring gulls on the Chicago River, and close-up photos of butterflies and wasps.

Postman butterfly at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

Eastern cicada killer wasp in the Lurie Garden

This past summer, I made many early morning photo trips to Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk and Lurie Garden. Every morning, when I geared up to explore, I was overcome with delight and anticipation. Hard to express in words, but it came from knowing that I had plenty of morning sunlight ahead of me and a garden full of beautiful subjects.

Young short-winged katydid in the Lurie Garden

My feelings might sound like those of a bona fide tree-hugger, but I haven’t always been interested in nature photography. My entry into photographing non-human scenes and subjects came a few years ago, when my friend Tom Dyja was putting together a wonderful book called The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream and asked me to get a photo of the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool (also known to native Chicagoans as the Rookery) in Lincoln Park. It was one of my first professional assignments and I wanted to do a great job, so I put a lot of shooting hours into it. I would wake up early, bike down to the lily pool, gear up and feel that same near-ecstatic feeling. My experiences at the lily pool led me to welcome other nature-related assignments and prompted me to seek out pathways of my own.

Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool, Lincoln Park

I’m especially interested in close-up photos of eyeballs—though I’m not exactly sure why. The eyes of insects fascinate me—they’re complex and beautiful. I want to make my macro photos look like portraits, so I try to get sharp focus on my subject’s eyes. Eyeballs are important.

Cabbage butterfly in Andersonville, Chicago

Riddle the kitty

“I don’t know what their story is, but imagining their stories is a way of exploring yourself.”

I love Beal’s understanding of storytelling. So I have to ask: (1) If I take a portrait of a milkweed bug, does the milkweed bug (and the photograph) become an extension of me? (2) Do I see myself in this photo of an eastern forktail damselfly? (3) Do I feel a connection with a garden full of beautiful and interesting subjects? (1) Yes. (2) Maybe just a little bit. (3) Most definitely.

Eastern forktail damselfly, Lincoln Park


All photographs by Bill Guerriero.

  • Bill Guerriero

    Bill Guerriero is a photographer based in Lakewood, Colorado. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Chicago Reader, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the book The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream. Bill's favorite photographers are Henri Cartier-Bresson and William S. Guerriero (his dad).

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