Humanizing the Homeless - Springs Rescue Mission Humanizing the Homeless - Springs Rescue Mission

Our invisible neighbors

This project really started a few years ago for me. I went to school and started my career in San Francisco. Like in many large metropolitan areas, the homeless population there is substantial. I remember having conversations with a friend about how people just pretend like homeless people don’t exist, like they aren’t human beings, and it bothered us. So I started trying to notice, trying to know their names, to understand even a little bit of their story.

I started buying gift cards and food to give them and learning about what each of them liked. I remember one day in particular when I was talking to a homeless man named James, I asked him if he liked the Subway gift card I had given him. I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “Actually, would you mind just reloading my Starbucks card?” So I walked a few blocks and reloaded his Starbucks card instead. It was at that moment that I started to realize something: he had favorite foods and places he enjoyed; he was a person just like me.Aaron's take on the homeless

Making our homeless neighbors visible

After moving back to Colorado, I continued to struggle with the idea of humanizing homeless people and started thinking about how I could use photography to help. I was in the middle of another project when I came up with a very specific lighting style, and it gave me an idea… “What if we set up a studio and sat down with homeless people to hear their stories and then took their portraits?” That’s when I contacted Springs Rescue Mission and I explained what I wanted to do, how I wanted to try and humanize homeless people by taking professional portraits of them. We weren’t sure what we would do with them, but I thought, at the very least, the people we photographed would enjoy them.

After a few weeks of meetings, preparation and pre-production, the day finally arrived. We loaded my car full of equipment and headed to the rescue mission. We set up our 10 ft background, and then we set up our light, black flag and a reflector. It was just like any other day on set, but then the people came.

Crisis is close for all of us

One by one, we sat down with 16 people from the homeless community over a span of two days. We talked with each of them for about half an hour and heard their stories.

One of the hardest and most uplifting conversations we had was with a man called Dave. There were two things that struck me about him. The first was his story about his mother’s strawberry shortcake. He told us how he’d grown up in Wisconsin in a strawberry farming community and how every harvest his mother would make the best strawberry shortcake. His eyes lit up when he told us about it, and you’ll see in his portrait that his smile and warmth is contagious.

Humanizing Homelessness

Dave is one of the subjects of Aaron’s Periphery exhibit , a Springs Rescue Mission client and neighbor.

The second thing that really impacted me about Dave was his story about his son, Richard. He told us that Richard was diagnosed with cancer at a young age and he battled it until the age of 13, when he died. I will never forget when we asked him how it affected his life. He said with fresh and very real pain in his voice, “I don’t think that’s something you ever really get over.” I couldn’t help but think of my son and my little girl and how hard it would be. It was then that I realized just how close we all are to having our lives turned upside down, how none of us are exempt from pain. We can only hope that there is a community around us that will be there when it happens, and that’s the beauty of what the Springs Rescue Mission is providing to these people.

Looking our homeless neighbors in the eye

Something else interesting happened to me as the project continued — I realized what an honor it was to photograph these people. Each person stood in front of me, and I could see how hard it was for some of them. I stopped looking through the lens and started talking to them while we were shooting. I asked more questions, and I listened. In the midst of stories about pet raccoons and rocket launchers, I clicked the shutter. As I looked them in the eye and took their photo, I realized that they were trusting me to portray them in a way that honored them. I took fewer photos then I have ever taken before—depending on their comfort I would sometimes take less than 10 frames, only shooting for a couple of minutes at the most. I realized that I was so used to just clicking away and focusing on the details of lighting and posing that I could lose focus of what photography can be. It’s a powerful tool, and photographers have a responsibility to use that power well.

As I sat down to edit the final images, I knew right away that these portraits were different. They were alive with story. I saw the pain of abuse, the pride of serving your country, and the joy of finding out you’re pregnant with twins the day before. In a way it was hard to edit them. I hoped and prayed that I would do them justice. I shed tears on my keyboard as I edited, and finally, after hours and hours of checking and re-checking, they were done. When I delivered them to Springs Rescue Mission, it was at that moment we knew something bigger needed to be done with these portraits, that people needed to see them.

From the streets to the gallery

I am a huge advocate for big ideas and doing what you’re afraid of, conquering fear in the name of moving forward. So we decided to pitch the idea of printing these portraits 4 ft x 6 ft and exhibiting them at the Fine Arts Center. When I first spoke to Curator Joy Armstrong about this idea, she said that they typically book their exhibits 2-5 years in advance, but she would like to learn more about what we were doing. We sat down for coffee a few days later, and I showed her the portraits we made, explaining our vision for the project. After that meeting, she showed them to the president of the Fine Arts Center, and she e-mailed me to see if we could set up another meeting.

Then something happened that again changed my perspective of photography. I sat down for a meeting with the CEO/President of the FAC, the Lead Curator for the Museum at the FAC, the Development Director from Rescue Mission and the CEO of a local marketing firm. That’s a lot of titles, but the titles themselves aren’t why I listed them. I suddenly realized that I was sitting at a table with a group of incredible people who came together because of photography. At that moment, it didn’t matter what my title was. It mattered that I had something to say that needed to be said. These photos were becoming the voice for a group of people who seldom have the chance to speak for themselves.

Good neighbors help each other

A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about how people won’t even look at homeless people. Today, there are 10 portraits printed on 4 ft x 6 ft metal sheet hanging in a museum, and people can’t help but look at them. This journey was catalyzed when I reloaded someone’s Starbuck’s card, and even if nothing else had happened, that action was significant to that person—I know because he told me. I want to encourage you to not only join the conversation, but to find a way to reach out and help a neighbor. You won’t know how much of a difference you can make until you start.

I am honored to have worked with Springs Rescue Mission on this project, and I hope that it will not only change the way you see homeless people, but that you would help them create a community where homeless people become our neighbors and friends.

Learn more about the Fine Arts Center exhibit and the courageous individuals who participated in this project.

About the Author - Thomas Voss

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