Disappearing acts in Pioneer Square
Documenting Pioneer Square, a photo essay by Jim Gupta-Carlson
About one year ago, I began a 30-day journey as a documentary photographer and diarist of Pioneer Square. Usually I would take the number 3 bus from my home in the Central District to Pioneer Square, carrying my trusty old Pentax and a few rolls of film. My goal was to shoot a roll every day for 30 days. I ended up shooting about 45 rolls over about 50 days. The project took longer partly because I ran out of money, causing me to wait to buy film, and partly because I started to run short on energy. It is hard to stay excited about a project when you are in the company of one.
In some ways, the extended project became a blessing. It gave me an opportunity to visit Pioneer Square at 4 a.m. on the morning after Thanksgiving, on Black Friday, after the outpouring of gratitude and generosity and before most retail stores opened for the holiday shopping season. My wife Himanee and I had gone shopping downtown earlier in the morning—Old Navy opened at 3 a.m.—with $50 each to spend, which we both felt was a blessing considering our financial condition. Downtown was already crowded.
Pioneer Square, by contrast, was almost silent, the streets lonely. A curious kind of lonely, because there were people out and about. For instance, the Union Gospel Mission was full and was turning people away for the night. Across the street, homeless people sleeping on the sidewalk disappeared into the landscape. And so my wife and I walked. We met the same two gentlemen twice within the hour, both trying to stay awake long enough to make it to the Millionair Club for breakfast and a chance for work. Each time we shared a cigarette and wished each other a happy Thanksgiving.
When I did this project, it was such an emotional experience: There was so much pain and loneliness at night. Some people had nowhere to go, no one to talk to. But in the morning, when food was offered in Occidental Park or City Hall Park, it really returned the humanity to a neighborhood that had seemed desolate and empty.
My method for shooting urban life is to simply shoot. I shoot every image as though it were a portrait. A photograph should capture the spirit and essence of its subject, whatever it is. I often frame my images to be dominated by the ground or the street. The ground to me symbolizes the life that is, has been, and will be a spiritual part of our communities and neighborhoods. Just after parking our old Volvo under the viaduct on Christmas Eve, I set up to shoot a building across the street. The old building, the streetlights and alleyway shared the spirit of those who built it, lived in it and rested against it. Just after focusing and framing, a hooded man appeared. He did not look well, physically or mentally. He pulled out a notebook that he called his “Book of Knowledge” and started to read from it, mostly incoherent, but all the while, I felt like I knew him. After he read, he turned to me and said, “We’ve met. I’m Avery.” I started to think we really had.
Christmas Eve night was an emotionally overwhelming and physically demanding exercise. My wife and I are athletes, have run many marathons and, being from the Midwest, know real cold weather. We brought plenty of warm clothes, and money for coffee and drinks when we needed to go inside. I think the overnight low was near 40 degrees. Standing on cold pavement for hour upon hour, however well dressed we were, became mind-numbingly miserable. Yet we saw hundreds of people sleeping on sidewalks because the shelters were full. That night, there was wailing and crying, there were groups of teenagers roaming and yelling, and there was this feeling again of great loneliness—in spite of the multitudes of people out.
As the skies lightened, the energy changed to one of activity and anticipation. At Occidental and City Hall Parks, trucks and cars were arriving. Thousands of people were gathering from all directions. There were smiles, handshakes and steam from hot coffee and hot soup. Materially, there were food and blankets on Christmas morning for those in need. Spiritually, there was shared breath.
Today, I write from a position of changed circumstances. I am living in upstate New York, finishing my B.A. at SUNY-Empire State College, where my wife began a position as an assistant professor in April. We are hoping soon to close a deal on a house built in the 1840s that comes with three acres of land and a barn. I recently had surgery for a herniated disk, and while the pain is intense, I am able to relax knowing that the health benefits that accompany my wife’s job will not make me suffer financially.
A year ago, the story was much different.
We felt how many people felt—and feel
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