A side issue of shooting "street photos" in populous, downtown areas.

The inevitable interaction with the homeless. 

I walk around downtown in Austin frequently; mostly for visual exercise and to keep tabs on the constant changes a growing city endures. I've never felt the need to make images of homeless people because unlike people with homes and offices they have little choice about their privacy, and I feel like the only fair targets for my cynical brand of "street photography" are those people who always have the implicit choice not to come out onto the public streets looking like circus clowns or psycho killers but who waive the choice and come along anyway. 

But inevitably, in cities like Austin, San Francisco and NYC, which are more tolerant of homeless people, one is frequently accosted and asked for (or demanded of) money, spare change, etc. How do you handle this? If you gave a dollar to everyone who asked you on a given day's walk you'd soon be too poor to leave your house...

A lot of street people have a well rehearsed banter or scam. They're trying to get $xx dollars together to get a bus to XXXXX. Or some variation of that. Some are just plainly aggressive and will curse you and rant if you don't donate to their cause. But there are always some people who I feel are in serious physical or existential need. They are the ones who elicit feelings of .... for want of a better phrase ....  social responsibility in me. Occasionally I'll walk by someone who looks and acts like they are really trying to keep it all together and they'll ask for a dollar or two to get something to eat. 

I rarely (almost never) have cash with me just because everything I need to buy is easier to acquire with a credit card. Earlier this year I walked by the JW Marriott Hotel and on the corner of the building there was a guy in his mid forties who was neatly dressed, hovering over a worn and tattered backpack and looking.... defeated. He asked in a meek voice if I could spare some change. I said, "Sorry, I don't have any cash" and walked on. But there was something about his contenence that struck me. I paused in the next block and tried to put myself in his shoes. Vulnerable, hungry, exposed. I turned around and walked back.

The truth was that I didn't have a dime in my pocket. But my wallet was full of credit cards. I asked him what he needed the money for and he told me he hadn't eaten that day. I invited him to go with me to the burger concession on the street level of the hotel and order whatever he'd like. He ordered a chocolate milkshake, a burger and fries. I paid for it, walked with him to a table and made some empty small talk hedging toward the hope that things would get better. Then I walked away and let him enjoy his meal. But for the rest of the day his situation stuck with me. No privilege, no 401K, no local family, no network. How would I survive?

That was months ago but yesterday I walked through downtown and photographed at the Pecan Street Festival. On the way home I headed south down Congress Ave. and at some point, while walking in front of the CVS Pharmacy store, I was asked by a homeless person in a wheelchair for some cash. I gave him my knee jerk reply about not carrying cash. He responded, passionately, that he didn't need the money what he needed was some over the counter pain relievers. He was very specific. He wanted Alleve. He was in pain. 

I'm no medical professional but I can sure tell, after 62 years of observing people, when someone is in real pain and distress. He was almost frantic. I told him I'd be happy to get him some Alleve and went into the store to find it. Then I bought him a bottle of water because... who takes Alleve without having something to wash it down with? Then it occurred to me that he might need something in his stomach because all those pain pills can mess with your gastrointestinal system, so I bought him a couple of protein bars. 

I don't know and I don't care if it was some sort of scam because I saw a look of real appreciation and visceral relief on the young man's face. Partly because he would get physical relief but almost as importantly, because someone acknowledged and believed him.  I told him that I was sorry things sucked for him right now and that I hoped they'd get better. I don't know if I believed circumstances would improve for him or not. But $11.95 is a cheap and temporary fix, and a long term reminder that most of us have no idea how precarious day to day existence can be. I walked a bit faster to get home to see my family. 

We don't photograph street people, except when they ask for it, but going out into the streets, out of our cars, out of our safe neighborhoods, and secure zip codes reminds us that there's more to existence than how many channels we get on cable and how quickly we can get that desired lens to our house by using Amazon Prime. 

Maybe, after all, breaking down our privileged isolation is yet another benefit of making photographs out in the street. 

The idea I put in my brain when I head out to photograph: not everyone is running a scam. Some people are in need. Even if you feel you can't help financially a kind word, even a smile, might make the difference to someone. It must be painful to feel invisible.

If you are in a city with lots of homeless and you like taking photographs in the city center how do you handle these kinds of interactions? I'd be interested to hear what others have figured out...


Anonymous said...

When I was studying photography there were a fair few of the students who took portraits of the homeless guys around here as a 'project'.
It never sat well with me. They gave them cash, and the people posed, so at least it wasn't candid.

I grew up in a (with hindsight) pretty rough town and was taught never to get my wallet out on the street. My ex was a criminal lawyer for a time, and a small number of the street folk round here had done time for really, really unpleasant stuff.
Then there's a lot who are just down on their luck. With the NHS (and free prescriptions) I'm grateful that we don't have people struggling to afford treatment.
But mental health care is not funded, understood or resourced enough and a large chunk of our homeless people are suffering on that front (I won't speculate on cause and effect or which came first). But yes, there but for the grace of God, go I.

One of the guys at work is heavily involved with a homeless charity and was recently honoured for his decades of charity work. Periodically, I pop some money their way in preference to giving it direct. The shelters, help, advice and counsel that the charity provide are a better way of helping (to my mind).

Another friend working in that field recently introduced me to an app where you can flag vulnerable people to them and other specialists. If someone's in trouble the hostel outreach guys can go and give them some specific help.

How we look after our most vulnerable people reflects our worth as a society.


Anonymous said...

Your post resonated deeply with me. I am a long-time street photographer myself and have seen the steady increase in the number of homeless with my own eyes. Walking past someone in need while hundreds if not thousands of dollars of photo equipment is hanging around our neck reminds me of just how fortunate I am. You must feel the same way. We both know there is nothing we can do to solve the problem. What I appreciate is that when you feel moved to show compassion to someone who is clearly suffering, you do so, and in a way that preserves what dignity they have left. May the inner light that guides your actions never dim.

David said...

I do a lot of walking and taking pictures in downtown Greenville, SC. Like you, I encounter people who ask for money. One one occasion I bought a man breakfast. (He preferred to take his to go.) I've handed out cash on occasion. I gave a woman a ride to a place she needed to go. I've also refused people.

We have a good homeless shelter near downtown. The people who run it are dedicated and have much wisdom regarding homelessness. I know there is help available for the homeless in town. Yet here they are still.

After an encounter with one of these folks, I often wonder if I did the right thing. Should I have given that guy some money? If I did, will it go for something good or something not so good. You never know. You just take it one encounter at a time.

And, no, I don't take pictures of these people.

Jim said...

I get the invisibility thing. One of the things that retirees often notice upon leaving a long-held career is a sense that they have suddenly become invisible. Unless we specifically plan a post-career network of social connection we suddenly find ourselves feeling anonymous and adrift. For the homeless, with no fixed place of their own, no cupboard and fridge to go to for food when they are hungry, a sense of belonging is non-existent and that is a scary situation to be in.

Gato said...

Seems like every time I go out, whether driving or walking, I see more homeless. And I wonder how I would make it if my luck went bad.

My own solution is to keep a few singles, and maybe a five or two, in the side pocket of my jeans so I can give a person a few bucks without having to get out my wallet. I probably don't encounter near as many people in Amarillo as you do in Austin, which makes it easier to give. You probably encounter more in a day than I do in a month.

I used to give to people who had a good story, but at some point I decided maybe the people who couldn't put together a story were more in need. And later still decided it's not my place to judge.

I don't do street photography in your sense, but I do a lot of location portraits and a fair amount of work with older industrial locations. I try to treat the street people pretty much the way I do anyone else, though I admit being a bit cautious -- some people have real problems and a few are out-and-out predators. I look people in the eye and acknowledge them if they make eye contact, even if just a nod. I respect people's space, even if it just a sleeping bag in an alley, and try not to intrude.

In short, live and let live, and I help out when I can.

Tom said...

Kirk, I greatly appreciated this post. Homelessness is indeed a difficult topic for we that have been blessed with much, but not nearly as difficult as for those living it.

Living out in the suburbs of northwest Austin, I usually only see the panhandlers on the corners. Four years ago I started working downtown and often times take the train into downtown. Then I walk up to 11th. Every time I do this I walk past the ARCH shelter. I confess I have not adequately dealt with how to process what I see, much less how to help.

Blessings to you for your small acts of kindness and compassion.


PS: The picture for this post is similar to one from the first post of yours that I read many years ago about one of the first Olympus mirrorless cameras. I think about that picture every time I go down that part of Lamar.

Peter said...

That is a very reasoned and compassionate response to homelessness. Thank you for posting.
Peter Wright.

pixtorial said...

Great post, touches honestly on a topic that we so conveniently like to avoid. The response that you've chosen, to selectively provide something that is needed, versus just handing over coins or dollars, is a fair and humane response. And, in the end, we each have to make our own evaluation, based on our own observations and thresholds, of who and how to help.

Having lived in Austin, I was always surprised by the geographic breadth of panhandling. We lived up on the Northwest side, and anywhere along the 183 corridor was fair game. Prior to Austin we lived in Las Vegas, and still return there to visit family. It is sea of desperation, framed by the harshness of both the city itself and the harsh climate of the high desert. In both places I never felt that I reconciled myself to finding a truly meaningful way to help. Unfortunately, in some cases, you really can't. We are, at the end of the day, fragile creatures of free will and a buffet of vices to choose from.

Finally, on the topic of photographing the homeless, find a way to check out sometime Pentagram's "Pentagram Papers #39, Signs." The Pentagram Papers are published annually by various partners and offices of global design firm Pentagram. #39 was published from the Austin office, and features a portfolio of very well done portraits of the homeless in Austin.

mosswings said...

Kirk, you are a good and compassionate man. The world needs more of you. The world is hurting. Thank you.

Alex Carnes said...

There are a lot of homeless people in the old potteries towns I often shoot here in the UK. The only time I've ever photographed them is when they've asked me to. I'm not particularly comfortable grabbing shots of strangers anyway - just not my photography - but I don't like the idea that I might benefit even slightly from shooting people who're suffering or disadvantaged. Unless I'm there to help them in some way I don't like the idea of photographing them. That's morality done with. Practically, to shoot the remnants of the old potteries, you have to go to places that are, frankly, dangerous. Drugs and alcohol are everywhere, and walking around with an expensive-looking camera is a bad idea. That said, the worst that's ever happened to me is some obviously intoxicated people have asked me to take their picture; strangely, over the past five years or so, no one's asked me for money or food, but I know I'm on thin ice in some of the places I go to take pictures.

tnargs said...

I don't make projects out of street denizens. I do have the occasional photo that includes them. I don't ask permission for any photos I take, of anyone. I take my photos on instinct, not rationality -- I honestly can't say why any subject is included, other than a quick sense that the photo might have potential. In general I feel bad for vulnerable people, so it's rare for me to include them in a photo, just out of shyness and discomfort.

I actually think my street photos would be better if I boldly included them. More honest. But my priorities are conflicted.

Kurt Friis Hansen said...

I never take photographs of poverty, if it can be avoided.

Abject poverty is always a problem. I cannot Alter the world, nor remove poverty. In a few cases, where it has been possible to exchange a local note - hidden hand to hand - on passing, I’ve done it.

I generally prefer to help in another way. An honest taxi chauffeur, a shoe-shine boy etc. People trying to scratch a living on or below minimum wage. Example: I knew a taxi drive to my hotel in Mexico was 20 pesos (around USD 1). The chauffeur quoted that amount, when we arrived. In other words also an honest guy. I gave him 50, and told him to keep the change. That way, I have a chance to spread a little joy and happiness, where it’s really needed.

Many, many small “drops” placed discretely all over the world.

Tinderbox said...

It's good to have compassion for people and to acknowledge the existence of street people with eye contact and an apology if asked for money, but in my extensive experience (many prior years living in Manhattan) it's wiser to not interact with them directly if it can be avoided. The vast majority of them tend to be either drug-addicted, criminal, or mentally ill, sometimes all of the above. I'm not denying their humanity by saying that, just stating a fact. If you want to improve their lot in life then there are many charities one can donate time or money to, without having to endanger oneself on the street in encounters that can be unpredictably negative.

Kirk, Photographer/Writer said...

Hard for me to walk away from a person in obvious pain. Sometimes the very best thing to do is call for help. 9-1-1 is just a phone call away. If the need is pressing it's the right option. In all else the rule is "kindness."

Anonymous said...

Even small cities have similar problems. I live in “downtown” Lafayette, Louisiana and we certainly have our share of homeless. Many can be somewhat aggressive, crossing the street to ask for money. The “I don’t have any cash” line works pretty good for those who don’t seem to be in any real distress. On my many trips to Home Depot, there is a corner at a major intersection where someone is frequently asking for money. Knowing that, I always carry a cold bottle of water, and offer that instead of cash. I used to carry McDonalds food coupons, but they don’t have those now. One day, an elderly man with a walker was standing at the corner. I gave him a few dollars in the “there but for the grace of god go I” thought processs. As the light turned green, I looked in my rear view mirror. The old man folded up his walker and walked at a brisk pace away from the intersection...

Anonymous said...

you will find homelessness in london pretty bad when you visit in december, it normally depends who is in government, it's the same or worse now than the last time the current lot were in during the eighties and nineties, there are very harsh rules for welfare recipients, money is stopped if they are judged not to be doing enough to find work, and this can cause homelessness sometimes, mental health budgets have also been slashed, an above average proportion of homeless are from the armed forces.

in the UK a lot of homeless people sell a magazine called Big Issue, this is run by a charity that does a lot of work supporting people in financial crisis, I don't think the vendors accept credit cards, I also don't take pics of the homeless.

Michael Ferron said...

Kirk I also walk downtown Austin. I keep a few $1 bills with easy access and hand them out when asked. Coming to Austin from the north I most often park on 8th St. near the police station. Seems I always get a spot nearby. As I paid the meter a small person who seemed to be deaf approached me. I could not tell if they were male or female. Not that it matters but this person made hand motions rubbing their stomach as in hunger and then a prayer gesture as they need help. I gave this person $5 as I felt for them. I guess it was not enough and they demanded more. At this point I demanded "go away". One cannot win sometimes.