How I Shot Saroyan

In 1964, after I came to Fresno, California, I had a great ambition to meet William Saroyan. As a photographer, I wanted to capture his greatness, his natural feelings and to portray his special genius. However, Saroyan seemed opposed to posing before the camera. After several failed attempts and 12 years of pursuing Saroyan, the opportunity finally arrived.

One day I discussed the possibility of taking Saroyan's portrait with my friend, the sculptor Varaz Samuelian. Since Varaz was a close friend of Saroyan, I had an idea of setting up my camera and lights in his painting studio in anticipation of a Saroyan visit. I was delighted that Varaz liked the idea.

March 26, 1976, was the memorable day. Varaz called to inform me that Saroyan was in Fresno and might visit his art studio. I quickly set-up my camera and lights after arriving at Varaz's workshop, which was located on the corner of San Benito and O Street, in Fresno. 

A few hours later, Saroyan arrived on his bicycle. I was standing behind the unfinished sculptures, rather excited and expectant, while Saroyan and Varaz were hugging and greeting each other loudly, yet warmly, in a typical Armenian fashion. I was not too far from them, and although Saroyan saw me, he did not pay attention to me.

Varaz Samuelian, William Saroyan, Paul Kalinian
March 26, 1976 Fresno California

Not wasting any time, I extended my hand and introduced myself as a photographer. I asked Saroyan if I could take a few pictures of him:

"Get lost," Saroyan said.

"But Mr. Saroyan, I..."

I tried to explain but my voice was drowned out by his booming reply:

"I said no... can't you hear? I don't want any."

"But why?" I asked him softly.

Looking straight into my eyes, he replied, "I don't want my picture taken. You had better forget it." He then turned to Varaz and said, "Who is this man? Why does he insist so much?"

"Willie, he is my friend and a good photographer," explained Varaz.

After a while Saroyan's attention shifted to various art works. I nodded to Varaz and quietly whispered in his ear:

"Varaz... guide him to your painting room where my equipment are set up."

"Ok... ok," replied Varaz.

Half an hour later, when the two of them entered the room, Saroyan noticed my camera as I was testing my lights. His face expressed displeasure and uneasiness.

"Are you taking my picture?"

"No, Mr. Saroyan, I am just triggering my lights. I don't even have film in the camera."

He came closer and demanded I open my camera. When I opened the back of my camera and showed him an empty film holder, he finally relaxed and sat down on a wooden box-like table directly in front of my lens. I quickly attached a preloaded film holder onto the back of my camera, without his knowledge.

As the moments went on, Saroyan’s confidence in me grew. He became interested and asked me to talk about the Armenians in my native country, Lebanon. During these fascinating and warm conversations in Armenian, I took several pictures of him.

Then Saroyan asked me to sing an old Armenian song, Giligia. As we sang this song together, our emotions began to swell. It was difficult for him to hold back the tears.

"I like you Paul," said Saroyan, "now take all the pictures you want." Actually, I had already taken most of my important sneaky shots even before he expressed his generosity.

Two weeks later Saroyan dropped by my photography studio in Fresno. He looked at one of his portraits hanging on the wall and said, "I have never seen my face in that expression," laughed loudly, then reached into his pocket and pulled out one of his books entitled, Don’t Go But If You Must Say Hello To Everybody, autographed it, “For Paul Kalinian, a great photographer-artist. Sincerely, William Saroyan. Fresno, April 8, 1976,” gave me the book, then left on his bicycle.

Our friendship took root and grew fast.

We had many long visits together in my studio. I will always cherish those moments together, sipping tea and discussing Armenians in the world. It was a 12 year journey meeting William Saroyan, which lasted 5 wonderful years, until his death in 1981.

Thank you Varaz, for introducing me to William Saroyan.