When photographer Bear Guerra was living and working in Austin, Texas, he often kicked around the idea of a portrait and interview project that would give a face and a voice to the homeless population.
Work, travel and life got in the way, until Guerra and his wife arrived in San Diego last fall.
“The first thing we saw were 30 people living under the I-5/C Street bridge,” he says. “I knew I needed to get back to it.”
And so, the San Diego-based humanitarian photographer launched “(In)Visible Project,” an intimate look at San Diego’s homeless population that will be displayed throughout the county as a mobile installation.
Guerra approached the oft-documented issue of homelessness in a unique way. While journalists (myself included) often gravitate to images that show life on the streets, Guerra chose to strip away the gritty backdrop and show the faces of these people.
The approach is humanizing and the result is poignant.
I asked Guerra (who occasionally does freelance assignments for voiceofsandiego.org) some questions about the project. His email responses are included below. For more on the project, which debuted at last weekend’s contemporary art fair, check out a recent piece by KPBS’s Angela Carone about the installation.
How did you decide to pursue this project?
I’ve felt like I’ve had something to say (as a photographer) about homelessness for several years, but I’ve gone back and forth about how I wanted to approach it. Of course, it is one of the most documented of American social issues, and yet there are more folks living on the street, in shelters, in cars, than ever before, and the number continues to rise. This says to me that we — as journalists and photojournalists — aren’t doing a good enough job getting people to care about this situation.
After thinking about pitching something to magazines, I realized that it could have more impact if we made it a multimedia installation that could be taken around the community. I met some other folks who were interested in collaborating, and who brought different experience and ideas to the project.
How have you found and selected people to be photographed for the project?
We worked with several different service providers around town and would set up and spend time at their facilities first explaining and talking about the project, and then interviewing and photographing folks who were using the services, and who decided they wanted to participate. We found this to be the most efficient way of working, as opposed to just setting up on a street somewhere. This also makes it easier to find the participants to give them prints, and stay in touch. Participation in the project was completely voluntary, and we ended up photographing and interviewing just under 100 people. Of these, 37 portraits are in the installation, as well as audio excerpts from most of the participants.
What have you learned about your subjects along the way?
I’ve learned a lot about many of them individually, but most importantly, I’ve learned that a lot of folks on the streets just aren’t all that different than you or I. Sure, there are those who are struggling with addiction problems or mental illness (some of whom also participated in the project,) but a lot of them aren’t, and it was clear that we have to listen to individual stories if we’re to understand homelessness in our community.
We came up with a set of questions that aren’t specifically about homelessness, but are more about common human experiences and feelings, things that anyone should be able to relate to. The main goal of the project is to challenge our stereotypes and preconceptions about who’s homeless, and we want people who see the installation to make some kind of personal connection to those portrayed and interviewed. So instead of directly asking someone, “What is life like on the streets?” or “How did you become homeless?”, we asked things like “What were your dreams as a child?, “What are you most proud of?”, “When was the happiest time in your life?”
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I learned that homeless folks love their children — just like someone living in a house. I learned that for many, the happiest times in their lives were when they were married, or raising their kids, or in college. I learned that they’re proud of their work or careers they once had, just like any of us.
What have you learned about yourself?
I learned that even though I like to think of myself as being very open-minded, I also held certain preconceived notions about the people we spent time with.
One story comes to mind. On one of the first days we were photographing and interviewing people, I saw one clean-cut guy who looked very much to me like he was college-educated, likely a professional of some sort. I immediately assumed he was a volunteer, but soon found out that he too was homeless. I’m happy that he also participated in the project, because he definitely defies the stereotype.
One other thing that was really reinforced for me, after hearing so many people’s stories, was just how fragile our existences really are. Many of the folks who participated had been laid off at some point from steady jobs, many were college educated, some even once had high-paying careers. But due to the economy, health problems, divorce, bad decisions, for those without much of a safety net, it’s frighteningly easy to end up on the street.
Have you followed up or plan to follow up with any of these folks and seen their progress?
We’re following up with everyone to give them prints, and we’ll be staying in touch as much as is possible. We’ve already heard that one participant just qualified for an apartment, so that was some great news.
Homelessness is one of those classic stories that photojournalists gravitate to. What makes this different?
Believe me, that was constantly in the back of my mind. But so were several other things about tackling a project about homelessness. At this point I think that images of faceless people sleeping on the street or pushing their shopping cart are doing little to advance the discussion about homelessness in America. I don’t know that the average person connects with that kind of imagery much. In fact, I think it might have the opposite effect, making people turn away, because that’s the same thing we all do when we see it on the street.
But as I mentioned before, homelessness continues to grow in America, and in San Diego. So I believe there’s definitely still something to say about this. And I felt like the average person might be able to make a human connection if I photographed homeless folks not as the “other,” but in a more dignified way — the same way I would photograph anyone.
This is why I chose to do this as a portrait project instead of reportage. I think of Fazal Sheikh’s work in Somalia, Afghanistan, etc., and it is some of the most moving and human imagery that has come out of these terrible conflict situations. If I — as one who looks at a lot of photography and thinks a lot about photography — connect more with those portraits, then I think that maybe others will as well.
Another thing that is always in the back of my mind is something that one of my favorite photographers, Sebastião Salgado, once said: “If you take a picture of a human that does not make him noble, there is no reason to take that picture.” This really informs all of my work, and guided me in this project. I’m also constantly trying to think of how I can best get an audience to engage with the subject matter of my work. I think that we as photographers, journalists, need to be constantly evaluating what’s working to engage our audience.
As photojournalists, we often talk about how a powerful image can effect change, but it’s oftentimes difficult to see the tangible results. What is your metric for determining the success of this project?
Homelessness is a huge, incredibly complex issue. We never imagined this project as a “solution,” but I do believe that the first step to finding solutions to a problem is getting people to make a human connection, and see themselves as personally involved. In San Diego, where there are already a lot of people on the street — and more ending up there all the time — people tend to ignore it, and the city has not done enough to come up with real solutions.
Just based on feedback we’re getting from people who saw the installation down at the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair, I’m feeling like we’re achieving one of my own minimal personal goals for the project: getting people to “see” homeless folks and keep in mind that they’re no less human than anyone else. One guy mentioned to me the other day that he recognized some of the people portrayed, but that he had never really looked at them. I think that making that connection is the first step. Then hopefully more people will put pressure on our city leaders, more people will volunteer, more people will donate to some of the great service providers in the city. This is all difficult to measure in tangible terms, but my sense as I talk to people who are seeing the installation is that it’s getting people thinking.
We’re also often drawn to gritty photos, but these pictures show a more polished, sterile image of homelessness. Why did you go that direction?
I don’t agree that these images show a polished or sterile image of homelessness, but I definitely made a conscious decision not to go the route of photographing someone sleeping on the street with a long lens so that they’re just another faceless person sleeping on the street.
I chose to make intimate portraits because I want the viewer to really study people’s eyes, skin, wrinkles, body language, etc., and hopefully be able to see something of themselves in the person portrayed. For many reasons, we don’t often get the opportunity to look closely at someone living on the streets, mostly because we’ve trained ourselves to look away. I wanted to give people the chance to look closely.
I also wanted these images to be as little about the photographic process as possible, so I chose to shoot black and white (as I often do), and used a consistent background. I wanted there to be as little between the viewer and subject as possible, so that people will really be focusing on the person in front of them, and not thinking about where the image was made, or what lights I used, or things like that. I hope people will make an emotional connection, so I just wanted to strip all the possible distractions away.
— Interview conducted via email and edited by SAM HODGSON.
Sam Hodgson is a photojournalist at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.550.5664.
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