Monday, April 26, 2010

chained, unchained

I know a homeless person now, Thomas (I changed his name to preserve his identity, dignity). Why? An upcoming juried SAQA (Studio Art Quilt Associates) exhibit I want to enter -- one that "take(s) a look at homelessness and all its implications."

I'd tried to locate a homeless fellow I had given food a few weeks ago, to no avail. Most of my work features digitally enhanced images, but how I was going to photograph him, I didn't know. It seemed invasive, forced, almost wrong. I'd purchased a credit card for our local supermarket to give him in return. But he wasn't in his normal spot.

So I drove to a downtown park where I've seen homeless people, and spotted Thomas. Far away from anyone,  sitting quite erect, his grocery cart at his side, a pair of headphones firmly set on his ears.  I could have taken his photo secretly (which I did) and be done. But that didn't feel right. And his posture made me feel safe enough to approach him.

Which I did. I told him I was taking photos for an art project, and asked his permission to photograph him. In exchange for some money for food, he agreed, and signed a hastily drafted release. His signature flowed steadily.

A conversation followed. He's been homeless since he was fired 20 years ago from a yard work job. He tries to read the newspaper daily, finding it in the dumpsters that also are the source of most of his meals.

No complaints. Those meals are good, he says. And often enough for him, strangers stop by the park with bag lunches, pizza. Since the local shelter closed for the season, he sleeps on a foam mattress he keeps in his cart. That helps with his bad hip. Yes, these cold nights have been rough. The Salvation Army is close-by, and he appreciates what they provide.

All the time I am taking his photo, self-consciously. He's not an object of curiosity. I reiterate that this is for an art project. I'm afraid I will alter him somehow with my presence, causing the photos to be too staged, not capturing what I am discovering.

Not so.

In his grocery cart, Thomas keeps a change of clothes, his toiletries, bedding. He's wary of his fellow homeless people, guarding against potential violence. His family is in Boston. He says he sees them every five years or so. That's enough, he claims.

No, Thomas' life is not an easy one. By any means. The SAQA exhibit says to "take a look at homelessness and all its implications." So what do I see? A man who, in a brief conversation, tells me of the kindness of others, of how he likes to keep up on the news, and who has minimal complaints.

So, as I looked over my photographs, I was struck by the first one, above. It appears as if this homeless man is chained to the bench -- literally, figuratively.

I'm not so sure.

1 comment:

Glorianne said...

Wow, this is telling isn't it?

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