Photography can be a powerful medium. When done well it can transcend the lame snapshots your great aunt took of her even lamer vacation and become an amazing communicator. It can make us desire things, it can inform us, it can disgust us, and in it's highest form it can make us question our beliefs.
One belief I hold quite close to my heart is that the homeless suck. Not a hard belief to hold, especially when you live in the city like I do. I don't remember the last time one of the homeless begged for change from me, not because it was so long ago, but because it happens so often. Then again, I remember the morning that I stepped in a pile of human shit on the sidewalk in the 15 feet between my gate and where my tuck was parked. I'm even comfortable calling them "the homeless" instead of "homeless people" because it is so easy to take away their personhood and look at them indignantly.
This view was challenged by some photos taken by my friend and fellow photographer John Koch. This last Saturday I met up with John to talk about the how and why of his photography. John has been into photography since about 2010, and has been photographing homeless people for much of that time. His early work was not that different from anybody else's shots of the homeless as objects that existed in the streets. After a criticism of how the power imbalance between the subject and the photographer was so great that there was very little interest in the photos came from a respected source, John began shooting with a new intensity and created a new series he called "involved".
John recounted a time when he was in high school that his parents had a tough stretch financially, and how he then looked at homeless people with an intense fear of homelessness happening to him. "This sounds kind of dark, but sometimes when I see what people are experiencing out there, I kind of think it's a common fate. You know what I mean? That you will suffer and you will be in a bad stage at sometime. And I think the difference is that, I don't think we should cast aside people because they're in a bad situation, because they're suffering."
John starts his Saturday mornings at Water Ave Coffee and then walks the city meeting and photographing people living in the streets. He has gotten to know many of them fairly well and has developed a rapport that gets him access to some very intimate moments. "I remember the first time I saw someone with a needle, and actually using it. And it was someone who I had met before. . . I just remember how strange the conversation was, I asked her what she was shooting and she said to me 'I don't know'. . . she seemed like she'd been in a lot of pain. But, I like her, because she's a nice lady."
The rapport John has with the people he photographs is what changed the power balance in John's photos. John has a connection with the people he meets, and it shows. When I view some of his pictures I'm forced to see the people in the same way John sees them, and they are given dignity by John, which is something most of us don't often award them.
"Everybody has a different story, although there definitely are some common themes. . . Drugs and abuse." John recalled "I've met a number of people who have said they were in situations where they felt they had to run away." Another common theme seemed to be mental illness. The staff at the Portland Rescue Mission where John helps serve lunch 3 times a month indicated that often the drugs are used to self medicate and to kill time on the streets, but the addiction is usually secondary to mental illness in a lot of the people they serve.
Personally, I love to use photography as a license to be curious. As someone who is for all intents and purposes broke as hell and in the process of short selling or having repoed my condo, I was curious about the conditions. It seemed the upside of homelessness was time. Talking to people on the streets on a unusually warm sunny morning in January you can find even homeless people in a cheery mood. The downsides seem obvious, but what many people related to me as the worst part of homelessness was harassment by the police. "It's like your not even human, the way they treat you," one man recalled. Harassment and trespassing notices are a daily routine when you live on the streets, and it's not uncommon to be woken up in the middle of the night by the police and either be arrested or sent packing.
It's unlikely that we will solve the problem of homelessness. My fear is that homelessness, much like war, is just a part of the human condition. As ugly and deplorable problems such as war, homelessness and addiction are, they have always been a part of the human condition, and are likely to exist in perpetuity. John is under no illusion that he can fix the world, but he is not without ideas to make it a little bit better. When asked what we can all do better as individuals John said "At a mental level, get rid of the us verses them attitude."
Check out more of John's work here: