The Tenderloin Project: Trannys, Pushers, and Dealers Are People Too

California has already inspired the rest of the nation to ban plastic bags, get high for health, and allow (wo)man-on-(wo)man nuptials. And now a San Franciscan might inspire Miami to stop ignoring those who sleep on our streets.

This Saturday, a traveling exhibit called "The Tenderloin Project" opens at Wynwood's Butter Gallery. In this photo series, San Franciscan photographer Sean Desmond aimed his lens at the Bay Area's seediest neighborhood in search of a little humanity.

He also asked artists such as Greg Mike, Mike Giant, Mark Bode, as well as Tenderloin inhabitants to collaborate for the show. Below, Desmond tells us what attracted him to a neighborhood most avoid and how it all started with a quote by Henry Miller.

New Times: What's the Tenderloin like?
Sean Desmond: This is a

neighborhood that is primarily known to San Franciscans for its vices

and as an area best to be avoided or rushed through. I remember a friend

saying that his only interaction with the community was when he went

there to buy OxyContin on the streets. These negative stereotypes

generously spread, and sadly they form the community's identity.

I have a lot of faith in humanity, though, and like to think that, at

the end of the day, we as people want to see our fellow peers succeed

and not suffer. Optimism can be blind, but with art it can be given a

face, and I think that The Tenderloin Project itself is a testament to

this positive outlook I have for the community. Giving the residents a

voice and face and including them as artistic collaborators with the

project speaks to this.

When I began researching the neighborhood and exploring it, my aunt and

uncle shared an article with me that a friend had written in the 70s

based around life in the Tenderloin. Although this was a different time,

there was a quote from a resident who described the Tenderloin as "a

place where anything you could ever want to happen could happen and

does." I think it still holds true for the Tenderloin of today.

Why did you begin the Tenderloin Project?

It began as a photography project whose aim was to capture an intimate

yet objective view based around the art of living in the Tenderloin.

There's a great quote of Henry Miller's that really inspired me:

"Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature,

music -- the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures,

beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself."

It inspired me to ignore stereotypes and instead understand what life is

like on the streets by observing and interacting with the community

there first-hand. I saw the drugs and so-called vices, but at the same

time I also saw a very basic element that is often easily forgotten:

human beings living their lives.

When people imagine venturing into the "closed doors" of street life,

they think that they'll just find crack, violence, and people shooting

up. I saw something else. I encountered people who were often eager to

share their stories and for their voices to be heard

The last stage of the project's evolution is providing access to the

arts for the residents. I'm looking into exploring art not only as a

personal form of expression but as a potential mechanism for personal

healing. The steps for the project have been small, and the successes

have often derived on a personal level, but with the project touring,

the message will hopefully spread further.
Where else are you taking the exhibit?

So far the show has traveled to Atlanta's ABV Gallery, and from there it

will be exhibited in Miami at Butter Gallery and then 99 Percent

Gallery in Brooklyn. The response to the project has been nothing short

of inspiring. I was concerned that, being so San Francisco-specific, the

project might not speak to residents of cities as far away from the

Tenderloin as Atlanta.

How are the other cities responding to the images that are so location-specific?

With the Atlanta show, though, I realized that people did not need to be

familiar with the Tenderloin in order to have personal experience with

its basic subject. Like a coming-of-age novel, the specific experience

may be idiosyncratic, but the general theme is one we can all relate to.

Homelessness is universal and it exists everywhere. It's unfortunate,

but true. And one thing that appeared to resonate with the audiences was

my attempt to treat all my subjects as human beings...human beings who,

while embodying hardship, retain the full range of human experience and


People sometimes ask how I was able to get the pictures that I got, and

that's a great compliment. It all comes from interacting and exposing

myself and not taking anyone for granted. It's so simple, but I say it

again and again: we're all human beings. I was an outsider to the

community when I began the Tenderloin project, and in general those who

have seen the exhibitions are outsiders to the homeless community. So

this gives them a chance to consider the subjects, so often ignored and

dehumanized, as human.

How do the collaborating artists

further your original intent with the Project?

Essentially what I do is make a screen print from one of the images of

the project and then give this print to anyone willing to collaborate

and allow them to interpret the image in whatever way they feel fit.

There's a full range of collaborators--from trained professionals like

Mike Giant and Mark Bode, to people who live on the street in The

Tenderloin. It's a give-and-take meant to further my message that we're

all equals here. We all share the same sky. Some of us have roofs over

our heads, and others don't. Some make a living from art, and others

don't even have access to materials to create.

The collaborations put

everyone on that same playing field. They're also allowing more people

to become involved with the project and for its message to spread that

much further. Mike Giant donated his image to the project, and I then

made an edition of 100 signed and number prints with him. These are

available through my project's website and also at the exhibitions. 

There are currently around 25 collaborative pieces,

and I hope to eventually have 49, as 49 is an emblematic number for San

Francisco. All of the collaborative pieces along with the original

photographs will be included in the final book.

What's next after Brooklyn?

After the tour of exhibitions is finished, the entire project will

culminate in a book that I'm going to be putting out through Skullz

Press, with all proceeds going back to creating a digital photography

workshop at the Community Arts Program, a non-profit run by Hospitality

House in the heart of the Tenderloin. This is the future.

"The Tenderloin Project" will be on display at Butter Gallery (2302

NW Second Ave., Miami) until the end of August. Admission is free. The

gallery is open Tuesday - Saturday, 12 to 6 p.m. Call 305-303-6254 or


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Amanda McCorquodale