Beyond the Shot

With street photography, there’s always more than just the photograph. Certainly, for photographers like me, the initial objective is to create art. But street shooters are also historians and social commentators. We aim to leave a mark on the viewer’s heart as well.

In the photo above, for instance, there is a visual context. The ornate building decor that surrounds the store window and above the entrance to the metro (subway) system pulls the viewers’ eyes across the photo. Their colors blend in with the colors of the two homeless sleepers, pulling them into the visual frame. Finally, the contemporary style, vivid colors, and confident attitudes  of the mannequins contrast with the exterior scene.

But there is more than that, isn’t there? The mannequins seem to stand in judgment of the sleepers. Their blank stares, arms akimbo, seem to say, “You have failed. You have quit. There is no place for you here.” The contrast in the photo isn’t by accident.

In fact, it is what caught my eye about the scene. You see, this is not the ghetto in which these people sleep. Another angle of the scene (below) shows where we are. This is downtown, in the United States capital, in one of the most affluent areas of the country. The pair is asleep, on a cold, autumn morning, on the grates above Metro Center, the core of the city’s subway station. Indeed, the entire block on which they sleep is atop the largest station in the capital. They are lost, alone, above the heart of the city.

With this in mind, looking at the scene from the view of a passerby, we have a different feeling. No longer do the rainbow colors above the subway entrance draw them in the scene. No longer is it lovely and intimate. No, these are simply two people who got abandoned somehow, in the core of the city’s awakening tourist district. They are alone and perhaps forgotten. There are homeless shelters nearby, and someone (or agency) has kindly provided them with blankets. Still, the mannequins judge.

“Jackets, $15,” they shout. The price is cheap, a pittance compared to the relative wealth of those who pass by. But it is a lifetime apart from these two or the alcohol-addled man around the corner who begs for money.

A single photograph cannot save them. However, it can, perhaps, remind us in years to come that we’ve been this way before. We can look back and ask, “Why haven’t we solved this problem?”

Mi amor, on seeing the photo, noted that it reminded her of photographs taken during the Great Depression. “The only difference,” she said, “was that the lines of people would have been longer.” Perhaps that means we have made progress. Maybe we do a better job of providing a living wage and taking care of our own.

But only time, and other photographs from street shooters, will tell.

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23 thoughts on “Beyond the Shot

  1. you asked the question… “Why haven’t we solved this problem?”…I ask this all the time…why doesn’t our country take care of its own??? Still think the buildings are beautiful…

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  2. I loved this discussion. Thank you. Too, the mannequins seem to say, “Do not enter.” As you say, the upper photo draws the eye to the plight of the homeless. The lower photo more portrays them as human refuse, something to be stepped around on the way to work. The street stretches on, drawing the eye ahead to a destination that doesn’t include the homeless.

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    • That is wonderfully put. I knew I didn’t like the 2nd view, though I couldn’t really articulate what it was. I think you’ve captured it exactly. Seeing them there, in the enormity of the street, they look smaller and insignificant. I wish I could have captured the surprise on people’s faces as they rounded the corner. At least there are some who are still surprised.

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  3. I once gave a man a pizza, but I should have given him my coat or taken him home. We are the ones in charge of solving the problem. And as you said it is one hell of a problem, esp with winter coming.

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    • Living around the city, I’ve learned. I give money to the shelters, but not directly to the people. Those who want help go get it, but there are too many others for whom you’re only subsidizing substance abuse problems. It’s such a delicate balance.

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      • It is i know. Such a difficult question. how far does one go. Can we force people in out of the cold? This is why i give food or sweet american coffees. But I have never even seen a shelter. I must find one and see what i can do in there, i certainly have food to donate… but the cold is coming and I do worry.. c

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        • I think giving food is brilliant; and you’re right, you can’t force people inside. Some shelters aren’t safe and folks decide they’re better off outside. I’m just very wary of giving cash unless I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to just spend it on a six-pack of something.

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  4. I’m glad you decided to write about his photo after all. The story changes the perception and the appreciation of the image and the inspiration that drew you to frame it.
    I think people are stubborn, they get themselves into these situations because they are stubborn, hell-bent on proving something to themselves, whatever that may be, and then denying themselves the freedom to change which of course is always their choice. Sometimes though it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees, so people don’t change. Offering your help to the homeless is a commendable thing, but if the help is not wanted, or rather if the homeless person refuses to be responsible for their own well-being and the changes they need to face, then you are fighting a losing battle. You cannot make someone do what they just don’t want to do.As we were talking about yesterday, by the time you witness these things, then the root cause has long since happened. The root is what needs to be tended to in not allowing this kind of hopelessness to take hold in the first place, and that we are all responsible for in it’s perpetuation. We are all connected after all, and kindness begins with the self, always with the self. You cannot create a safe, loving environment for others unless you are willing to do that for yourself first. Nobody is a martyr.

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    • That’s an excellent point, and one we often forget. People want to see others stand strong and tall, as if the world were a forest. When one begins to sag, we start plucking at dead leaves, watering, pruning … but it’s all pointless. We trees die at the roots. After decades in the city, the one thing I’ve found is that some people have issues that require professional help, which they don’t want, and others just don’t want to help. I’ve talked to a few homeless people who seemed to be on the street as some form of self-punishment.

      In life, all you can do is help the people who want help. That’s why I give money to agencies. They are qualified to find those people. I don’t have the heart.

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  6. I’m stopping here via Cecilia’s blog. She was right about your images and words. There is much to learn from you.

    The scene shown here is so foreign to me, living in rural Minnesota, an hour south of Minneapolis. Yet, we have our own versions of this scene. And I, too, wonder if we are doing enough to help those in need.

    Your post rates as a truly thought-provoking piece.

    Every photo tells a story and yours could tell many, depending on, as you note, perspective and experience.

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    • Thank you so much for coming by. I’ve been to rural Minnesota, which is beautiful, by the way, so I understand what you mean. This is a different world.

      I started this blog because I felt like I needed to say things, but didn’t know what. I appreciate your helping me figure that out.

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  7. That first paragraph says it all. It strikes me that your stuff gets stronger and stronger. I’m going backwards in time right now, I love to see how people move over time.

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