Street photography is all the rage. Candid images of unsuspecting people capture the personality of a community. On a recent Friday night, I roamed the streets of Flagstaff looking for scenes of real life to photograph. The above image of a friendly exchange between a customer and employee in a downtown Flagstaff business, captures a touch of the good feeling that filled the streets on this particular evening. It was the first Friday of the month. People were out and about having dinner, buying a dessert to share with a friend and enjoying out the diverse collection of art and artists on display. It was wonderful to be out and in the midst of such a positive vibe.
Often, street photographers seek out subjects that challenge our senses or sensibilities. There is nothing wrong with taking that approach unless it crosses a line and becomes exploitation. Homelessness is a real problem in America. At the very heart of this problem is a healthcare system that leaves far too many people without access to needed professional medical treatment for mental illness or addiction. Mental illness and addiction make it incredibly difficult for a person to function in society. As a result, far too many people suffering from these illnesses are out on the streets–homeless.
Homelessness is tragic. It is all around us and easily recognized. I suppose this explains, in part, why the anonymous homeless person is a favorite subject for some street photographers. What the photographer sees, is the person’s circumstance: homelessness. What is missed, is the person’s condition: illness. Personally, if I never see another black & white photograph of an elderly person in tattered clothes, blankly staring and oblivious to the passing world, it will be too soon. There is a good chance the person in that photograph is suffering some form of illness. And that, in my opinion, makes the act of photographing the person a form of exploitation.
It seems to me there is a misguided notion that photographing the homeless carries on a tradition begun during the Great Depression. What most people don’t understand is the fundamental quality that made homelessness during the Depression so different from today’s version. During the Depression, the underlying condition or cause of homelessness was not a physical or mental illness. The underlying condition was a global economic collapse that had destroyed the very foundation of society.
The catastrophic economic disaster which produced the Great Depression sent tens of millions of Americans out of their homes and onto the streets. By and large, these were not folks struggling with mental illness or addiction. They had been fully-functioning members of society–working, raising a family and being neighbors. But the physical institutions that served as the foundation for American society had been hit by an economic tidal wave. With entire industries destroyed, there literally was no societal framework within which a person could function. There was only chaos, a maelstrom engulfing millions who lost their jobs, their homes…everything.
The families and individuals featured in the most iconic of Depression-era photographs were just like you and me with one significant exception: They were homeless. An economic collapse was sweeping across the nation like a plague. Jobs had not been lost as casualties of a dreadful addiction or a debilitating mental disorder. The jobs had simply gone away. Not given to another person. Just…gone.
You could see the despair in people’s eyes in those photos. You could also see the determination and the dignity. These were people who had all the potential and ability in the world. In any other circumstance, they would have been the neighbors we met at the local super market, joined in worship on Sunday or socialized with at the next school open house. What made the Depression-era homeless so admirable, was that look in their eyes. They had been stripped of every physical element of dignity. But that circumstance did not touch their inner sense of dignity. They were survivors and they were determined to regain what they had lost.
In the 1930’s, homelessness was a random act of cruelty. Today, homelessness is more preventable and treatable. This makes the act of photographing a homeless person different. Depression-era photos are evidence that a person can lose every worldly good, and still retain their resolve and dignity. Photographing the mentally ill and addicted exposes people at their weakest, at a time when dignity and resolve are rare commodities. It is a means of objectifying a person in need of medical attention. It is exploitative. We may not be able to rescue every homeless person from the addiction or illness that has sent them to the curb. But we can, at the very least, treat that person as more than a compositional element in a photograph.
So, while out walking the streets of downtown Flagstaff the other night, I wasn’t looking for homeless people to photograph. Instead, I looked for every day people. People like you and me. People who share the same dreams, struggle with similar worries and who, on a Friday night, were seeking a brief respite from their work-a-day lives. I looked at the man in the above photograph and wondered, “What is he thinking?” I suppose he could have been contemplating some great world problem. Or maybe, he was thinking what I would have been thinking in that situation, “Should I go home or have another beer?”
When I got home that night, I did enjoy a cold beer. But I didn’t head home, right away. I had my camera, a fast lens and a downtown full of interesting people to photograph. People like you. People like me. Good street photography reveals the qualities that make a town a community. It celebrates the people, their dignity, their compassion for others and their ability to enjoy life’s simple pleasures. Like a bag of chocolates or a cold beer.
Get out and shoot!
Bill Ferris | November 2013