street portrait images
… and what the financial industry has done to the economy of the United States … The same sector also funded laws in San Francisco that made it illegal to sit and lie on San Francisco’s sidewalks … In San Francisco, like a lot of big American cities, homelessness is used as political football for folks who are running for office … Most people who are homeless are, you know, are what we would consider working class. Folks who definitely spent most of their life working but probably at lower wage jobs that don’t have a lot of stability … We have half of our school children in San Francisco are living below the poverty line …
San Francisco. The financial district. A city graciously designed on the edge of the Bay. There’s an ethereal feeling to the city center. Maybe it’s a result of the culturally rarified air you breathe on the West Coast.
San Francisco, as always, extreme in its contradictions.
I vividly remember my second day in San Francisco. I had just returned to the US after having lived in Europe for 27 years. And as I was walking into the town from one end of the center, I must confess how shocked I was by the number of people on the street who seemed so impoverished and ill. But then as I moved through the city I felt a sense of awe for the beauty of its architecture. The surreal contrast of wealth to poverty. The unearthly juxtaposition of God’s people to corporate prominence.
My initial intention was to photograph the so-called homeless. Rarely today is one group so socially ostracized as they are. The word Homeless, in the nomenclature of today’s society, speaks volumes about an individual’s social standing. The emotional charge surrounding the word homeless is enough to have some people change sides of the street to avoid encountering one of them. The homeless by some have been defined as the new niggers of the 21st century.
Consequently, I was resolved to challenge the clichés of the homeless as being drunk, drugged, uninspired, vacuous and less than human. I desired to allow the humanness of these persons I met in San Francisco’s financial district to be mirrored onto the photograph.
But it is not always easy to understand who is what among the people you meet. Some live on the street because they are penniless. Others have a source of monthly income, some may even have a pension, but it is not enough to afford a room to call home (especially in San Francisco where the rents are extremely high). The choice comes down to either having enough money to buy food for the month or having a roof over your head.
Some people we see out on the streets panhandling for money are neither homeless nor without a permanent shelter. They have a room, possibly a small apartment, but they are hungry. They simply don’t have money enough to buy food for themselves. This is especially true for older people who have maybe worked all their lives and now find themselves penniless.
Often in San Francisco the homeless are distinguishable by the shopping carts they push around. The carts are usually the home to what is left of their worldly possessions. However, there are also others who use shopping carts for their work. Recycling is a very common activity among people living on and off the street. The carts, therefore, serve as the means of transport for the bottles, cans and plastic they gather.
Not everyone without a home sleeps on the street. There are associations, both private and public, which offer temporary sleeping arrangements for the night or short periods of time to those without a home.
Most shelters have a one night at a time rule. They require everyone to leave, with all their possessions, early the next morning. It’s simply a roof over the head for the night. The next day you’re back on the street.
Consequently, the common theme of those portrayed in this essay is that the individuals photographed belong to the lower 35 percent economic bracket of our society.
Of all things to think about, Mandelbrot fractals came to mind while photographing. I am referring to that sense of self-similarity which I believe permeates all levels of society. Humanity is forever mirroring reflections of itself back to and throughout itself. Marginalized groups cast back the same social norms, beliefs, behaviors, their fellow citizens exhibit regardless of so-called social casting. In the case of the poor and homeless, it’s as if someone took a magnifying glass and instantly enlarged the image of what our society actually looks like. The lens reveals in great detail our social flaws just as well as our deeper sense of humanity. Homelessness or being poor is not a them. It is an us we are seeing.
If I had wanted to photograph individuals lying on the street unconscious, taking drugs or pissing in the street, I easily could have done so. I had walked past these scenes frequently. However, to look into a man’s eyes which once upon a time were blue and see no color is not inspiring. It is truly sad. I preferred celebrating humanity’s beauty rather than the loss of its soul.
Of those homeless I spoke to at length, they all had had a job, a home and some type of family situation as an adult. Their past reflects the middle class dream. Their present a middle class nightmare.
Maybe if the truth were to be told, in this world of dissociated social consciousness and environmental destruction, in one way or another we’ve all become homeless.
interview with John
The American psyche is a hole. It’s empty. Ideas are shaped and pre-packaged and handed then to them. And of course, under the structure that we have in the word, especially in America, is that … it’s negativism. If we don’t have something that we are against, we’re nothing. We try to fill it up with stuff you buy at the store … commercial boggles, you know. Within this structure there has to be people that are also the faceless enemy. It’s open season on the homeless. But you can’t be prejudiced against people who are minorities, unless they’re homeless, because that’s not racial at all. It is a class of people.
And when I live out amongst people, individually or in groups that are closely knit – like a man and a wife or something, invariably the people treat you like an equal … like a human. But you get into a group of people – people on a bus, people at a bus stop – people anywhere where there’s more than one, they form a consensus based upon their programing that they watch on TV or whatever they get it from. And you then become a person to be ostracized, a person to be not listened to. It’s a stereotype, and it’s reinforced every day.
People that want power structures, whether it’s political or social power structures, have to have something to be against. The people that want to keep their houses, want to keep their mortgage, they have to have a bogeyman that will keep them to tow the line to keep feeding the monster. Otherwise, they’re going to throw them to the bogeyman. In this condition, at this time the bogeyman is the homeless. Do you want to go out there and live like them? And of course not. It’s a bogeyman. It’s just like … I thought my dad dreamed it up, then I read recently we went over, 1991, we went over to Desert Storm and we fought with Saddam Hussein. Then George Herbert Walker Bush pulled out and he [ Hussein ] was left in power. And dad said, well you know the reason they didn’t finish is because he’s a bogeyman. He’s a straw man. He’s there … and in the future when they need another bogeyman, they’ll go back. And, you know, if you understand that, you can see it all falls together. That’s how the system works.
Cities like this, in all the country, they’ll show the massive homeless people and all. And they’ll always show the worst. Well, what it does is it comes and it assaults the archetypes that you have. We all, you know … We all have archetypes, memories … I believe it’s in our DNA or cellular system … and that’s … I’m not able to explain that really good. Somebody that’s read Jung and studied all that … It’s obvious that … if you can bring fear into the archetypes, present a dark anti-archetype or whatever, it works the same way.