The problem of unaffordable housing — and the inextricable problem of people experiencing homelessness — is so obvious in major cities, including New York, where I live, that it can be overwhelming. For some, that feeling can be translated into a sense of learned blindness — If I don't look too hard, it is not a problem, and certainly not my problem.
Jeffrey Wolin, a photographer in Chicago and professor emeritus at Indiana University, has taken the opposite approach. He has spent the last several years talking with and documenting the circumstances of people who are homeless. He works with advocacy organizations, including the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, to find participants. His approach is collaborative, showing people in a place of their choice, with a text telling their story in their own words. The overall effect allows for more dignity and compassion for all parties involved. His photos have been turned into a book, Faces of Homelessness, and are now on exhibition in Chicago. We spoke with Wolin about his work, and about some of the ethics involved in working with this community.
Can you talk about how you approached this project?
When I moved to Chicago, the homelessness in a big city is in your face every day. So it was like, what is this crisis? How do we fix it?
[My] first impulse says, well, I'll grab my camera and I'll just walk down the street and I'll take pictures of homeless people, but then it's like, well, do I give them money or do I pay them? Are they telling you the truth? I decided that the best thing I could do was work with professional agencies that advocate for the homeless and really understand the problems of homelessness, rather than just, you know, poke my way into people's private lives.
With my portraits, I started working with the leader group [of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless], which includes people who have been homeless but are no longer homeless. One of the first things I learned was that the people we see on the streets, some of whom are clearly in need of medication, they're not the majority of homeless people. They're the most visible and stereotypical parts of the problem. To fix their problems is different than fixing the problems of the vast majority of homeless people, who are invisible, living doubled up with their families or their friends. They're living in shelters; they're living in a whole variety of situations.
The solution to that homelessness is very different. They need housing. It's a lot of women who've left abusive relationships. They need childcare so they can work. Or they need job training. They need legal help. There are kids coming out as gay — when they're growing up at home and their parents kicked them out of the house. What happens to them? People who lost their job and didn't have a financial backup or a family that could take care of them.
So not everyone has drug addictions or mental illness. Not at all. But that's what we think of.
Everyone needs food and shelter. That's just basic human needs. If people are homeless for less than a year, they have a much better chance of reintegrating fully into society. Whereas the longer it goes on, the harder it is to break out of the situation. So it's really important to get people the care they need when they need it rather than it becoming a chronic situation.
There are 16,000 kids in Chicago who are technically homeless in that they have no permanent address. They're not on the street; they're living with a grandma or an auntie or friends, and that's how they're getting through. But try getting up and taking your SATs when you don't have a home.
There's one woman in the book, her name is Maxica, who had a good job, she had three kids, and she had saved up enough money to buy a house. She was about to buy the house and then discovered that she had breast cancer. By the time they discovered it, she had to have radical surgery, mastectomy, chemo, and she didn't have good insurance. It ate all her life savings, and she and the kids were on the street. They wound up in a shelter and were homeless for almost nine months.
Now she has her own apartment. She has her master's degree in business. Because we are the sort of country without a terribly good safety net, it's not hard for anyone to wind up homeless.
What are your interactions with the people you're photographing?
I work with people who are pretty well vetted, so I know that they're not gonna make stuff up. I made up a questionnaire, sent [it to] them, and then asked where they wanted to meet.
The questionnaire focused on: How did you become homeless? What's your day-to-day like? Where do you sleep? How do you think we could solve the problem of homelessness?
Questions that get them to focus on their experiences. I take notes and then I read the notes back to them. When their story is compiled, I send it to them for their approval.
I'm still in touch with almost all of the people that I have photographed for this project, but there are some people who've just disappeared, their phone number no longer works. They're not doing email; the organizations have lost touch with them. In the cases where I still have contact with them, I send them the portrait and their narratives in case they want to change anything. Hopefully by the end of the year, everyone will get a copy of the book and everyone gets a big print of their portrait.
What are some of the ethics that you've considered working with a population that's a little bit more vulnerable and very often not treated respectfully by people with cameras?
When I was at the George Eastman Museum running the darkrooms, we had [documentary photographer] Lewis Hine's negatives. It gave me a deeper understanding of his work and his humanity and the way he approached vulnerable populations — child labor, recent immigrants. All that is timely again, unfortunately. I became close with Walter Rosenblum, who was a protégé of Lewis Hine in the Photo League, and a well-known photographer in his own right.
I learned from these masters of photography that people matter and that you don't take advantage of people. You don't mislead them. It's this tradition of humanistic photography, working with people who otherwise tend to be invisible and making them visible, but on their terms. With these shows and these books, people will be able to look in that way to communicate directly with them. I use their own words. I don't rewrite the stories.
I make sure that I do everything I can to avoid the criticism that I'm taking advantage of people that I'm trying to help.
What are things that you hope the viewer will get out of this project?
I've grappled with that question, and I don't have a perfect answer. Basically, what I want first of all is just education. And then that [people] look at the portraits and are compelled to read the stories and connect with the human, one to one. Here's a face, here's their story. And to have some empathy for these individuals.
I would like people to realize that the problem is not as simple as what they're seeing on the streets, that most homeless are invisible.