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.