See How We Are
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:
LEON "POPCORN" ED
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."
A tall, sturdy man with a salt-and-pepper beard, Popcorn stops at Miami Avenue and sits under the Metromover tracks. Buses and trucks and a few cars hustle for lane position. "I don't do drugs, period," Popcorn says. "I might drink a beer. But I can't even think about drugs. See, there's so much depression out here. So they go on drugs and they lose their minds. But you see a lot of people not on drugs who can't get a job. I admit, sometimes I catch myself walking down the street and talking to myself. I haven't slept in a bed in so long I wouldn't know how to sleep in one. I sleep up in here [the nooks and crannies of downtown just east of Overtown and Camillus House] and you never know if you're gonna get busted in the head at night."
When he received his camera, Popcorn hopped on a bus and traveled to South Beach, Coconut Grove, "all over, man. That's 'cause I wanted to do a good job. I just want to let the people know, all the public people, what kind of situation we're in, what's going on out here. I hope that they see the pictures and want to help. Maybe they'll see, maybe they won't. Personally, yeah, I think the pictures will make a difference."
Dressed in gray slacks, a T-shirt from the 1992 New York City Marathon, and a pair of ocher work boots, Popcorn suggests that the best way for public people to help the homeless is by making donations -- directly to the homeless. "These programs, all of them are just a big ripoff. It's a business for them, that's why they need to keep us homeless. They get a $100,000 donation and we can't get a decent meal. Come around and give somebody an old T-shirt or something and you'll get the best blessing in the world."
Soft-spoken and clear-eyed, Popcorn made for an especially polite photojournalist. He even made sure to get clearance for his metaphorical shot of an empty tourist bus. "I figured, if I can get a picture of this, this one would make a good photo," he explains. "I asked the bus driver first. I always ask first. I know I didn't need to, but I wanted to. Some people get an attitude [toward a street person]. But he was a nice guy, said, 'Sure, go ahead.'"
Popcorn pauses, looks down the rusty tracks, glances up as the Metromover zips by overhead, and raises his voice as a truck shifts gears on Miami Avenue. "Yeah, I would like to get on that bus in the picture. I'd go to the Bahamas or Trinidad, all those nice places. I've never been out of the country. This white friend of mine -- you know, there's all kinds of people out here -- he told me to go up to Lake Erie. Up to Michigan. I believe I could get a job up there. I plan to do that. An old white man wouldn't lie to me."
If 49-year-old Geartha Jones didn't have the sweet face and soft words of a mother, you might think she was jiving you. But when she expresses concern for "those people under the bridge," you can tell it comes from her heart.
Jones was born and reared in Dublin, Georgia, a small town southeast of Macon. At age twenty she married and came to Miami. She has two children, Rosezina, thirteen, and Joe, ten. A little more than a year ago her husband was convicted and sent to jail. Suddenly, Jones found herself on the street. "He was helping me with the kids, but when he went in jail I couldn't afford the rent on the apartment," she recalls. Fortunately, she almost immediately found a place at New Life Family Center in the Wynwood neighborhood. Run by the Christian Community Service Agency, New Life has for nearly six years offered refuge to intact families, couples with children, single male parents with custody of their offspring, and single females with or without kids. (Many shelters separate men and women). The agency currently has 60 residents living in fourteen family rooms, with one unit shared by three women.
As for her experience as a photojournalist for a day, Jones says, "My plan was to go out and take pictures of people on the street and under the bridge so maybe they can get help," she notes, referring to a homeless enclave located only a block or two from New Life. "So I was walking under the bridge to where the homeless people are. All the kids were running for the school bus, and I asked them to pose. I didn't intend to take the picture [shown here] -- I accidentally snapped it."
It's nonetheless telling: At New Life, children are everywhere. Beaming smiles, however, aren't. And Jones didn't encounter an abundance of grins during the rest of her shoot. "Once I got the camera, I spent two days thinking about what to take. When I went under the bridge, I asked permission and told them I was a photographer. Most of them said yes; none of them were rude. But they'd jump around when I was pointing the camera at them." Although those pictures weren't of the highest quality, Jones herself felt a sense of accomplishment. "I know the feeling of being homeless and I wanted to help [others]. When I was finished I did feel like I had helped."
Her roll of film won't help alleviate homelessness, but her role in the project brought to her what it was supposed to bring: empowerment, the chance to do something most people take for granted.
And things are looking up for Geartha Jones. Standing outside the row of small rooms that make up New Life, Jones, wearing pink slacks and a white blouse with pink flowers, her gold sandals revealing violet toenail polish, mentions the parenting and work-skills classes she has attended at the shelter. She refuses to criticize the place, forcing a smile and mumbling "yeah" when asked if the rooms are nice and comfortable. When she says "I'll be happy to get out of here," she seems to be talking about opportunity rather than reprieve. After six months at New Life, she explains, she'll be moving into her own apartment in Overtown. New Life is helping with the first month's rent, then she's on her own.
"I plan to get a job," she says. "I have some skills. I can be a cashier or a maid. But mostly what I want to do is to help others." And she vows to remember the people under the bridge: "Taking pictures was fun and sad. When the kids were pranking, that was fun. But seeing those elderly men under the bridge and over by the store sleeping on pasteboard boxes, well, that was sad."
Torquill Smith, who gives his age as "pushing 40," refuses to be identified as homeless, preferring instead the title of "homeless advocate." Sitting at a table outside World Resources on Lincoln Road Mall in South Beach, Smith chews lemons and mixes sarcastic humor, philosophy, and non sequiturs to the point where fact and fiction either blend or become irrelevant. For example, he flatly states he doesn't drink or abuse other drugs; later, though, when asked where he'll be sleeping tonight, he quips, "Wherever I pass out."
A former musician who shifted his interest to videography because he found music too "one-dimensional," Smith clearly intended to tell a story with his disposable Polaroid, primarily using Miami Beach to create a photo essay of signs, advertisements, and urban bric-a-brac adorned with words. A photo of a parking meter -- "time expired" -- follows a shot of a hand-written poster listing a store's beer prices, which follows "No Vacancy" and "Help Wanted" signs.... The theme is obvious: Society has many ways to point out that not everything is open to everyone.
But Smith, half laughing, dismisses such highfalutin analysis. "I'm not trying to tell you anything with these photos," he says, plucking a lemon seed from his lip. "I just went around looking for bullshit and snapping away. I was trying to help Keith Schantz deliver a product for Polaroid." However, Smith contends he felt qualified to participate in the project: "I'm involved with homelessness. I was given an objective. Now you should let the pictures speak for themselves."
With his hardened visage and dreadlocked hair, Smith could pass for a past-his-prime punk rocker. In fact he claims to have been one of rock's original punks. In the Seventies, inspired by the New York Dolls, Smith says he hung out with many of the New York City-based punk pioneers, playing in all-original rock bands the Nothing and Cyanide Sweeties. "I played music most of my life. I wrote on guitar, but I was a singer. This was the time of the Clash and the [Sex] Pistols, Dead Boys, Ramones. There was a high mortality rate. Sid and Nancy. I took [New York Dolls drummer] Jerry Nolan to St. Vincent's; he was comatose.... That's when I left New York."
In 1991 he bought a house in West Broward County. "There was no work along the lines of what I do," he says. "And so it was foreclosure, foreclosure, foreclosure. I didn't like boring suburbia, it was like living in L.A. or Long Island. I came to the Beach and started doing some video."
He moved from place to place, encountering problems with one landlord he accuses of throwing away his left-handed Les Paul guitar, CD collection, camera, and a tape of him jamming with the late punk icon Johnny Thunders. He says he has a place to stay in Broward County, but that he must spend much of his time on the streets of South Beach in order to stay in contact with the homeless network, particularly to conduct outreach.
South Beach's homeless situation is different from downtown Miami's, Smith observes. "It's a different mindset based on environment. Look at what it turns into after dark: Overtown is Fort Apache, the Bronx. Here it's the opposite." A downside, he says, is that police tend to be more active in bustling SoBe even as crime runs rampant across the causeways.
For the photo project, Smith worked with his friend Robert Estlinbaum, who looks something like Edgar Allan Poe. (The two also formed Video-Active Productions and pitched an educational day-care program called U.S.A. K.I.D.S. to the City of Miami Beach, which rejected the proposal.) "We work in tandem," Smith says. "We're kind of like Tweedledee and Tweedledum."
The photo project, he says, "is a great concept. But I think it won't do a thing [to help the homeless situation]. It's time to examine the needs and put a new spin on the whole face of homelessness. People have become jaded. The financial structure that's in place right now is badly managed. Which means the community has to suffer. People with art galleries have to open their businesses with someone sleeping, defecating on their doorstep. Then they have to call the police. Initially everyone was alarmed [by homelessness]. Then they got burned out on it, but the problem was getting worse and it's not going to go away. It's affecting the quality of life for the community."
The theme of "normal" society clashing with people who live on the streets runs through the photos Smith shot. "I'm not into drinking and partying," he says with a straight face. "I'm into art and business." Does that statement sum up his pictorial point of view? Smith shakes his head no. "What I was trying to say was, "'Stay cool and carry a spare pair of shades.'
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.