Friday, May 30, 2014

Cardboard Testimonies

I would like to share my thesis with friends, family, and you. Unfortunately, I cannot embed a 120 page PDF onto the blog, nor would you want me too. A good chunk of it is research. I mainly want to highlight the homeless men and women who I had the privilege of meeting while writing my thesis. Over the next month, I will share the stories and conversations from homeless men and women in Austin.

Abstract:

In the late 1970’s, factors like the economic recession, an increasing unemployment rate, and the advent of crack led to a national increase in homelessness. The noticeable rise of homelessness initiated a national conversation and raised questions regarding the health of the US economy and the effectiveness of American social institutions to care for those below the poverty level. As a result, the terms “homeless” and “homelessness” grew more common during the 1980’s, along with accompanying misconceptions about the homeless community.

Since its inception, documentary photography has been used to address social problems. Drawing inspiration from photographers Jacob Riis in the 1890s, Dorothea Lange and Walkers Evans of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression Era, and more modern photographers, I wanted to explore various approaches to photographing poverty and homelessness. The works of these photographers helped shape and define my own journey and stylistic approach to documenting homelessness in present-day Austin through photography and oral narratives.

There is power in a photograph and in a story, just as there is significance in simply knowing a stranger’s name. The resulting body of work is a juxtaposition of photographs and art created by men and women living homeless in Austin. This collaborative art and accompanying life stories were gathered in Austin, Texas over a ten-month period in 2013 and 2014.

Personal:

The desire to meet and communicate the stories of homeless men and women has stayed with me since a high school mission trip to serve the homeless in San Francisco. Throughout college, I have been encouraged by my experiences with the men and women living near the University of Texas at Austin campus in Austin, Texas. I have had the fortune of meeting strangers eager to share their stories, and who often desire more than money. During my freshmen year, I apprehensively approached a man with face tattoos and multiple piercings who introduced himself as Jailbird Jay. I offered him a sandwich, and in return, he asked for a hug and proceeded to tell me about his journey from Albuquerque to Austin. But within West Campus, I have also seen varied reactions to the homeless men and women that linger on “The Drag.” Racial slurs, a fistfight between a homeless man and a college student, averted glances, and the rare glob of flying spit. I want to address these reactions, and thereby explore perceptions and related misconceptions regarding homelessness.

While my own experiences shaped my perception of homelessness, I believe that a photograph and a story may accomplish the very same. As I look at photographer Paul Fusco’s photos of the homeless in San Francisco during the 1980s, for example, I can draw parallels to my own experience three decades later. The faces of his subjects captured in photographs are as familiar as those of the people I met on streets of the Tenderloin District. These photographs complement my own memories, but given the opportunity to repeat my San Francisco experience, I would take a camera and photograph the Tenderloin myself. I would choose to capture images of people that society tends to ignore. I would use photography to preserve in an image their humanity and life stories.

I have found that I can recreate similar experiences and interactions with homeless people here in Austin. More importantly, I can use photographs to bring awareness to the problem of homelessness. Within my thesis, I draw inspiration from photographers who have documented the plight of American homelessness since the 1890s. Looking at three distinct periods of economic hardship in the United States, I explore correlation between documentary photography and poverty. By using the photographic medium, I hope to address misconceptions that society may have toward homeless men and women living on the streets in Austin. I hope to make the homeless visible for you.