Normally, when I take a picture of someone who is homeless, I put my subject against a white backdrop and use a broad light source so I can make the image as flattering as possible. I try to make my subject relax and smile. If a subject needs to get cleaned up, a bathroom is available. I try to take them out of the environment of the street to make an image that is judgment free. That’s the way I take a portrait of anyone. Sheltered or unsheltered.
The other day I got a call from a former colleague who asked if I had any pictures of homeless people in public places. She said: I know you don’t like to take those kind of pictures, but I thought you might have something we could use for our website.
I told her that I didn’t have anything like that, but I would take one the following morning and send it to her.
Friday morning, on my way into work, I ran into a man named Oso who was resting in one of Seattle’s many alleys. I asked him if he minded if I photographed him for a website devoted to ensuring that if there is “insufficient shelter space, cities that prosecute homeless people for sleeping or camping in public places violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.”
Oso told me that the city of Seattle harasses him daily for sleeping on the sidewalk. Seemingly everything Oso owned was in a shopping cart next to him, and he was surrounded by the paraphernalia of his habit. It was a grim scene, but Oso seemed happy to oblige if it would help keep the city at bay. I shot some pictures, and we exchanged a few more words. Then I left.
When I got to work, I sat through one interview, then had another meeting with a colleague. It all took more than an hour. When I got to my desk, I began to cry. I had held it together through two morning meetings, but when I found myself alone in the newsroom, I just couldn’t hold back the emotions. It was the first time in almost four years that I had lost control like that.
I suspect it’s because I have always tried to take people away from the reality of the street in an attempt to make a flattering image. Perhaps I am also trying to distance myself from the reality that they live with every day.
I don’t know what the answer to homelessness is. I do know that I’m going to keep creating flattering images of people as long as I can. But it’s important to avoid distancing myself from the struggles that unsheltered people face each day.
When, and if, people are ready to make a change, Real Change offers a hand up to anyone who needs it. We’re having our 21st Anniversary Breakfast on Thursday, Sept. 17, at the Washington State Convention Center. If you’re interested in coming, please do.
Sit with us, eat breakfast and watch the magic that happens.