It’s a cool, cloudy day in San Francisco. I can feel a chill under the shade cast by buildings and clouds. An apparently homeless man sits near a steam vent trying to get warm in the wet, billowing cloud. Head down, he appears asleep. Imake a picture and walk away.
Street life first grabbed me and my camera’s attention years ago. Now, I spend a great deal of my time walking and making pictures in urban settings, feeling the electricity and constant changes the streets offer. As I make photographs, the street feeds me energy. Walking city streets also tells me a great deal about myself, how I view others, and how close I am, in fact, to strangers.
When I began making photographs, few of the dispossessed lived on the streets. They now form an integral part of urban street culture. Street photographers deal with their presence on every shoot.
Most beginning photographers feel all the usual anxieties when getting close to any subject, and more so with the homeless. Like them, I started with a notable fear of the homeless. I had no experience with strangers and my camera. Sometimes I still feel that hesitant twinge. Their faces and demeanors can appear menacing to a stranger.
Slowly and cautiously, I began to stop to speak with the homeless, hoping to learn more about them. Some now recognize me as I come near. Others appear to enjoy our discussions. Some tell me personal stories about their lives and families. Some want to talk about their other lives, before living in the open, somehow grasping for the respectability they lost, or had taken from them.
Now, I almost always greet the homeless as I walk by them. Even if we do not know each other, an honest smile and greeting usually breaks a barrier. These small gestures shows a modicum of respect and an acknowledgement of their existence.
My usual approach begins with a photograph. Most of the time I photograph men; women keep their distance from unfamiliar men for obvious reasons. If possible, I walk around the person and get candid images. Then I approach him, greet him, and try to make some connection. He may be wearing a unique hat, keeping a pet nearby, or bearing some other mark of his special nature. If he warms to the initial discussion, then, hopefully, one of us pushes the conversation forward. If appropriate, I ask permission to make more photographs.
If they refuse to engage, I thank them and go on my way.
On most days, several men sit on a split rail fence near Del Monte Beach. They watch with little interest as walkers, runners, and cyclists pass in front them. They talk among themselves, but spend their time simply staring or sleeping. When I greet them, they respond openly and seem friendly. Daniel, the most outgoing of the group, usually wanted to talk to anyone who stopped. The other men often joined the conversation.
One day the fence seating was empty. None of the usual spectators sat in their seats. Daniel had died and the group lost its center. The remaining men drifted to other nearby spots and groups while one or two left the peninsula. Today Daniel’s bench sits empty.
Anita greets me, en francais, every time we meet. She sometimes appears in bad shape, unable to carry on a conversation. Anita grew up in Paris and had a job as a clerk. She does not reveal how or why she came to the U.S.
She once told me that she felt a lump in her breast and claimed that she would see a doctor, but has yet to do so. I offer to take her to a nearby clinic. She pushes back. “No!” We no longer see her, and friends have lost track of her as well. (We learned later that Anita had an extended hospital stay including surgery. She returned to the streets with a smile.)
Miss Potter has all the outward appearances of a man. She is one of the very few living true hermaphrodites. She asks that I take her picture as she opens her phone and shows photographs of her own. She is effusive and talks of her notable exploits around the globe while working for the CIA, the FBI, and other clandestine organizations. She laughs with a big smile. I never see her again.
One day, I find my friend Jay on the wharf playing the public piano made available for anyone to use. I watch and listen as he plays a piece by Johann Pachelbel. He follows it with “Memories” from Cats. Jay plays for nearly an hour with no sheet music. He says he is working on several classical pieces that he wants to play. I make my first photographs of Jay.
He continues to play for tourists on the wharf. The city will not allow Jay to place his tip can on the piano, saying he needs a business license. When you see him, slip him a couple of bucks.One day, I find my friend Jay on the wharf playing the public piano made available for anyone to use. I watch and listen as he plays a piece by Johann Pachelbel. He follows it with “Memories” from Cats. Jay plays for nearly an hour with no sheet music. He says he is working on several classical pieces that he wants to play. I make my first photographs of Jay.
The next time you walk by Jay or another of my friends, greet them. You may be surprised at how close you are to them. You may find new friends. You may find light in a once dark place in your heart.
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