Monday, April 02, 2007

Wrong turn under a bridge to nowhere

San Francisco, CA, March 2007 [Click to enlarge]

While walking through downtown San Francisco, I came across an elevated expressway that was midway through the process of deconstruction. The few sections that remained simply ended unceremoniously, awaiting their inevitable fate.

A homeless man lived underneath the last section. He alternated between lying under his plastic sheeting and checking his worldly possessions in his nearby shopping cart. I wasn't looking to capture him, but as I scoped the desolate-looking bridge, I noticed the lost soul living beneath it and thought that perhaps the more important message lay in the man and not the concrete that surrounded him.

I hesitated to take the shot at first. What right did I have to invade this man's privacy, after all? As I debated myself over the moral issues related to this one photo, he turned away from his cart and noticed me standing there. He immediately headed back to his sheeting and took shelter. I guess I had my answer.

But as I meandered elsewhere on the site, he kept eyeing me from beneath the plastic. I began to feel a little bolder, figuring that my taking his picture and sharing it might just prompt the kind of thought that could, in a fit of rose-colored hope, prevent others from meeting his sad and solitary fate. The greater good, I decided, lay in pushing his buttons. I further justified it by figuring someone in a public place has little expectation of privacy - yet another tragic consequence of a life few of us could ever begin to comprehend.

I walked away and gave him a few minutes to settle into his sheeting, then turned quickly and squeezed off three shots in rapid sequence before leaving for good. He never knew I took the picture, never knew that strangers around the world would soon get a brief glimpse into his anonymous life, would soon mull over the sad tragedy of one moment in a homeless man's day.

For a man whose every waking moment seems focused on holding onto what's his and maintaining a tenuous hold on a disappearing patch of concrete, it struck me as ironic that his image would be discussed and debated in an online world that he likely knows nothing about. Yet another tragedy of today's lost souls.

Your turn: What's the greater good in my having taken this image?


CG said...

A very moving and thought-provoking post again, Carmi.

talj said...

I don't know if any words I say can really do this image or the feelings and thoughts it creates any justice.

A very moving and powerful shot that stops the viewer in their tracks and, after reading your accompanying words , makes them (me)really think about this mans life. Wonder what he was thinking whilst looking at you? Would he have allowed you to take his photo had you approached him? Just what is this mans story, how did he get here?

This also evokes many other feelings and thoughts that I am unale to put into words.

Thank you for sharing this with us Carmi

Sara said...

To remind us to "be kinder than necessary, because everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle"

Interestingly someone sent me that quote yesterday & I posted it up on my blog & here you have a photo of exactly what I was trying to show - if you don't mind I will put a link on my post today.

Anna said...

What a shot Carmi. I appreciate the story behind it. I noticed the red sign in the background as well almost like a warning.

The greater good is awareness discussion and image of the realities that lie outside out doors.

Tracy said...

The greater good? Bringing a proverbial *face* to the problem of homelessness. Although it is my belief that some *choose* this life, but not all...
As a woman, and a mother, the homeless tug at my heartstrings. We have made *care packages* to keep in the vehicle with us. Ziploc bags filled with packaged crackers, raisins, etc. These are things that we can hand out quickly through the window when we see someone in need. It doesn't seem like much, but again, as a woman, and having a fear for my life, and the lives of the children that I'm hauling around, it is better than nothing.

kenju said...

It serves to remind us how fortunate we are not to share his present state.

I almost wrote "share his fate" and decided against it. Who knows but that he might find it in himself to get out of there. I hope his situation is temporary.

There was a documentary I saw recently about some homeless man in CA who was given 100K as a social experiment. The giver wanted to know if he would start living again; get a job, and apt., etc. The outcome was depressing, as he gave it away or spent it all and is now homeless again. It is a sad commentary on our country.

sage said...

Good shot Dorothy Lange, oh no, your Carmi. I do think photos often open our eyes to the pain in the world and hopefully that's good. I too have a shot from SF in my blog of yesterday morning--but it was a more pleasant scene--a sailboat tacking against the wind.

Nestor Family said...

The greater good of this photo... It points out that we are all in community with one another. It forces us to think how we choose to fit into that community and decide what we should do from there knowing certain realities.

Great post... interesting battle you had going with yourself deciding whether or not to take the photo.

Holly Schwendiman said...

So many messages...the wrong way sign in the background and then the evaluation that we make judgements on others based on our beliefs of wrong and right...the reminder of how we all long to find a place in this world and protection from the elements...someone is always,so,so many things run through my head.


utenzi said...

Greater good? Hmmm. I'm blanking here, Carmi. Maybe just as an example of a life that the rest of us should avoid. There's too many ways to fall between the cracks of society.

Passover starts in just a few hours. I hope your family has a nice Seder. I don't have any matzo on hand but I'll have a glass of Manischewitz tonight instead.

The Harbour of Ourselves said...

i agree, the greater good is someone real in front of our eyes rather than another statistic....wonderful shot and moving post

we all need in our own back yards to move from being moved, to action.....easire said than done granted - but we must for the sake of millions like this guy

great courage Carmi

Beverly said...

When I lived in Haiti, we faced the same dilemma. Did we photograph those people in their misery, or did we take only photos that would show the smiles?

It's a tough one, but I believe that you did the right thing. We so quickly pass by these people and don't give them a second thought. We could so easily be there.

Rainbow dreams said...

It is stark reality... real poverty right here on our doorsteps... that is less easy to pass by and ignore when it is captured by camera and placed in front of people.

rashbre said...

Seeing your free press post and this one prompts me to mention the movement started in England called The Big Issue. I'm not sure how well known it is outside of the UK, but its a newspaper and foundation aimed at giving homeless people a way to find themselves.

Its regularly sold on the streets of London (for example) and has high quality editorial donated freely by well known writers and celebrities as well as good quality advertising.

The sellers are homeless people and they provide a very personal and obvious face to the situation, which is unfortunately common to many urban areas.

It can't solve everything, but it is a step towards recogition of this big issue.

Gyrobo said...

The picture would only be validated if it, or this conversation, leads someone to improve the lives of at least one homeless person.

It's an actionable thing.

Anonymous said...

wow, that made me think that he is somebody's son, somebody's brother maybe

awareness said...

The greater good? Awareness.

so many people walk through life with their heads in the sand or up their ass and don't see the pain and struggles of others....and hence don't acknowledge that we all play a part in the human condition.

Change.......sometimes comes from a little light shone on a picture that needs no words.

I'm glad you posted this pic, Carmi.

tommie said...

the thing it brought to my mind was very self-centered....while my husband is half a world away fighting in something that doesn't seem to this very country we have people we should be taking care of.

Like I said, a very selfish thought.

Carolyn said...

Carmi, you know I like you, but...

This reminds me of those TV programs where the reporter is walking hand in hand w/a little child in some 3rd world country. The child is dirty, barefoot, hungry. The reporter is fed, clean, expensive leather shoes. I always ask if the reporter/crew fed, cleaned and shoe'd the child after using them for their story.

I asked the same thing when reporters were in New Orleans after the flood, and people were needing a drink of water. If they could get in to report, why couldn't they bring water?

So I ask now, what was Your greater good for this photo?

I don't mean this to be negative in any way, but you did pose the question. I posed my honest response :)

carmilevy said...

That's an awfully good question, Carolyn, and I'm glad you asked it.

When I was in j-school, one of my courses was a beat reporting module. As my beat, I chose the southeastern block of downtown Montreal. Smack in the middle was one of the oldest men's missions in the country. It was as rough and depressing a neighborhood as you'll ever see.

I interviewed homeless men and got them to share their stories. I rode along with food bank vans as they made deliveries from morning to night. I stood in the lobby of the mission on freezing cold nights, capturing the scene with my pen.

In the end, I didn't help out all that much. I carried some boxes and laid out some blankets, but the real outcome of my time there was a series of first-person, new journalism-style stories that illustrated in painstaking detail what this almost-invisible world looks like.

Did I use those men? Possibly. Thanks to them, I had the material I needed to write great pieces and get a good grade.

Did I use this man? Also, possibly. But I long ago realized that my greater good is using the gifts I was born with to spread the story, to provoke discussion and thought, to motivate those who read me to get issues like this onto their radar.

And through the multiplying effect of media, I believe that someone out there who consumes this messaging will be incented to act.

Yeah, it may seem lame of me to hide behind my pen and my lens, and I willingly stand before you and take the gentle flogging for my perceived intent. But the last time I gave a homeless man some money, he used it to buy wine. Did I help him? Or did I contribute to his demise?

In the end, I don't see it as using. I see it as opening up a dialog so that scenes like this eventually become rare, if not non-existent. If it seems a little crude of me to pry in and then amble back to my comfortable home, then it's criticism I'm willing to accept.

Carolyn said...

Carmi, thanks for responding to my comment. You have some very valid points!

I'm not criticizing journalism or press coverage of such things wherein it brings attention to a need we, as a people, should address. My pov is based from my frustrations here in the USA where journalism has become so 2-fold. By that, I mean it's either reported with a sense of depth and caring which instills a sense of action in us viewers, or it's strictly sensationalised for entertainment value.

The former is what I remember watching growing up, and felt encouraged to take journalism in college (which I didn't complete, btw). The latter type of reporting has unfortunately become the norm these days. Photos within the genre of homeless folks are so askewed among the celebrity b.s., etc., that the "emotional eye" is blinded to them. They are not presented in a stop & think manner like you did with yours here.

I've also given $ to a few homeless that used it for alcohol, which angered me. But I gave my stepson lunch money which he used to buy CD's from friends at school, lol! (I still gave him lunch $ though.) Now, if opportunity presents itself, I will direct/take someone to a local shelter, call someone who can help him/her, feed a meal, or donate goods if needed. Like you, I kind of got soured on the $ thing :)

Thanks so much for letting me know your pov and letting me express mine. I believe our thoughts/feelings are on the same page :)

Anonymous said...

My first thought when I see this kind of picture is "There but for the grace of God..."
And Tommiea, it's not a selfish thought at all. There are so many people in need in every country in the world. Where to start? Where to draw the line? I guess it's like the story of the boy and the starfish, even if we can't help them all, we can make a difference to one.

Steph said...

Hi Carmi,

I happened by here while researching for an article on homelessness and art. I am pursuing a journalism career in London and while freelancing, I work for an artist who spent a year painting a series of homeless people in London.

My first reaction to the original entry was "why didn't you try to talk to him?" The dialog between you and Carolyn toward the end of your comments was very interesting and I was wondering if I would be able to read the articles that came out of your past experiences talking to these people.

When I interviewed the artist whose paintings I'm writing about, she seemed to have found her whole experience talking to homeless people frightening and uninteresting. I can understand the frightening part, but uninteresting?

I have always had a million questions about the homeless and my experience working in soup kitchens and with Habitat for Humaity, etc has always been fascinating.

Just curious about yours...

Shaun MacKenzie said...

Hey Carmi, Thanks for this post. I have worked with near homeless and homeless individuals. In our throw away world, I hope one day we will come to realize people are not thrown away objects. Every picture tells a story. Thanks for getting the conversation started.