See How We Are

When the Miami Coalition for the Homeless wanted a photo study of the area's street people population, it commissioned the homeless themselves

Send a professional photojournalist into the streets to capture images of the homeless and you'll likely end up with portraits of a cliche. The rough, craggy face of a battered soul, perhaps lighted from the side to elicit pity. A broken man -- or woman -- framed by squalor. A person with the eyes of a beaten puppy. An old, dirty guy swigging from a bottle in a bag.

Send a homeless person out on the same assignment and you get back pictures of buses, signs, buildings, an otherwise unused sewer pipe that someone has turned into a residence of sorts, and a pranking child whose eyes shine just like those of a kid who has a house and two parents and a ride to soccer practice. At least that's what Keith Schantz discovered. Two months ago, Schantz, director of policy and program development for the Miami Coalition for the Homeless, launched a project that put 100 disposable cameras (donated by Polaroid) in the hands of 100 street people. Their directive: Go out and make photographs. So far 31 of the cameras have been returned, and hundreds of snapshots have been developed. And there's barely a cliche in the bunch.

"Minimal cliche," Schantz says as he spreads the snapshots on a table in front of him and points out personal favorites. "I was surprised by the amount that weren't the old guy sprawled on the sidewalk you always see. That was interesting to me. I think the photographers were actually trying to express some type of message by not showing the cliches, and by presenting something that may be open to interpretation."

Some of the images mesmerize, provoking a range of thoughts. Others, like the work of nonhomeless amateur shutterbugs, belong in a trash can. "The quality runs the gamut," Schantz offers. "There are things that are out of focus and uninteresting to things that are beautifully framed, have interesting points of view, and look like they were done with million dollar cameras."

The best of those shots will be displayed from August 3 to August 30 at Miami-Dade Community College's InterAmerican Gallery on SW 27th Avenue as part of a show curated by Amy Cappellazzo, the school's director of galleries. Cappellazzo became involved after Schantz spoke to a friend at Miami-Dade who told him that there was, as he puts it now, "a pretty cool curator who might be interested. I set up a meeting and she was into it."

An open-minded New Yorker, Cappellazzo felt sure the undertaking would provide worthwhile art. "These photos may lack immediate impact," she notes, "but they generally have greater resonance than those with obvious shock value. They show a way of living that generally goes ignored, hidden, or wildly exploited. There is an interesting tension in much of the subject matter about interiority and exteriority -- like the personal sensation a homeless person feels being on the outside of many societal systems."

She also points out that the project produced the kind of work you'd expect from any group of people, homeless or not. "The range of quality is what you might expect from the general public," Cappellazzo explains. "There is some good work and some not-so-good work. Though they are homeless and that distinguishes them as a group, these participants are, after all, a slice of the general public."

From the beginning, Schantz set no rules or regulations for this particular picture-taking slice. However, he did set goals: to inspire all Miamians to help solve homelessness, to empower homeless people, and to educate everyone involved. "I think it was effective," he contends. "I see these photos as a great kind of presentation of expression. The project allowed people an opportunity to express themselves that they might not get otherwise. In that way, it went really well."

One thing that both the photos and the comments of the people who took them reveal is that no single type of homeless person exists. They come in all sizes, shapes, colors, ages, and backgrounds. Their current situations range from making the transition back into so-called normal life to remaining destitute and sleeping under a bridge.

New Times spoke with three of the program's participants:
Metaphors swarm Leon "Popcorn" Ed like mosquitoes. Walking along the railroad tracks near Camillus House just east of Overtown, he recalls a childhood in Mobile, Alabama, during which he walked a similar path every day. "My daddy helped build this country," the 47-year-old street dweller says. "He worked on the railroad. When I was ten or eleven I would tote him lunch every day, walking down those tracks barefoot. My mom used to make the best butter beans, black-eyed peas...." His thoughts drift into the scalding Miami air the way the aroma of soul cooking wafts into a living room.

As a child, Ed picked cotton, worked other crops, and carried logs. He graduated from high school, then spent six years working in a paper mill, followed by "many years" as a laborer in various jobs. "Six years ago I came down to Miami looking for work," Popcorn says. "But there was no work. I might go over to the labor pool one or two days a week. Sometimes I beg people for a little money. They bring in all these people from other countries, it ain't right. I can't get a regular job. And there's nothing I can do about it."

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