The Power of a Photograph

guy at safeway

I had an interesting experience this morning. Passing by the Safeway, I saw a man sleeping at the corner of the building (a spot that is frequently filled by a street person asking for money, or just sitting there). I decided to take his picture for my blog. You couldn’t see his face, which was covered by a blanket. I felt a little self-conscious, but did it anyway.

As I was taking the photo, a young guy tapped me the shoulder. He politely asked me if I could ask the man’s permission before taking his photo. I said that I didn’t want to wake him up, and that you couldn’t see who he was anyway. The guy nodded and continued into Safeway, throwing back over his shoulder, “His [the sleeping man’s] name is ____, by the way.”

He was making the point that the man was a person, not just a random homeless guy that we can walk by and ignore, or take a “tourist” photo of (Exhibit A: “Seattle Homeless Person”). I didn’t catch the name that he said, so I followed him into Safeway to ask him to repeat it. I also wanted to thank him for making a good point. I appreciated what he said, and how he said it. But he disappeared down an aisle and I decided I needed to get to work.

I was inspired to start writing about and working on homelessness issues in Seattle because I was tired of, angry about and depressed by seeing the same thing every morning for months – a person sleeping the doorway of a church (in the dead of winter) as I walked by on my way to work. So one day I took a picture, posted it on Facebook, said that this was UNACCEPTABLE in a booming city in the richest country in the world. And that was the start of it. That photo and experience led to a lot of work on my part about this scourge (volunteering at a local youth shelter, serving on the board of Real Change), and a lot of words written. These pictures mean a lot to me. They tell the story of these people better than my writing ever could.

This touches on an issue I’ve always been a little hesitant about. I’m not sure if taking someone’s picture when they are sitting or lying on the street is a good or bad thing. On the one hand, it could be considered an invasion of their privacy, especially if you plan to put it on a public forum like Facebook, or a personal blog. Even if you don’t use their full name, you are kind of broadcasting their homelessness. Exposing them.

On the other hand, we know a picture is worth a thousand words, and I believe that’s particularly true in this case. I can write all I want about the homeless people that I encounter on the streets of Seattle. But actually seeing a photo of this person – their clothes, their face, their sign asking for money (if any) – brings their humanity to light in a way that words simply can’t. I’m sure there’s even been research done about how a different part of our brains are affected by visual images versus print. (As a writer by trade, I’m not exactly happy or encouraging of this point of view, but I admit it anyway.)

And I’m only using these photos to raise awareness of the issue, to change people’s minds or motivate them to help in any way they can. So I would argue it is important, and makes a small difference in attacking this large and troubling problem we face as a society.

Another testament to the power of photographs: There’s a Seattle nonprofit called Facing Homelessness that does incredible work, both in serving the homeless directly (soliciting donations for individual needs and giving out clothing and other items) and in raising awareness of this epidemic in our society. One of the ways they do this is to publish powerful black-and-white images of individuals and families experiencing homelessness. I strongly encourage you to check out their website (http://www.facinghomelessness.org/) and Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/HomelessInSeattle/?fref=ts).

Their founder and director, Rex Hohlbein, is a very inspiring speaker. He has a great story about how connecting with a single homeless person outside his architecture office in Fremont a few years ago changed his life, and led to his founding this organization and dedicating himself to this work. You can watch his Ted Talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dpanM1yPbk

So here’s how I go about handling the photo issue. If the person is sleeping, I don’t disturb them. I sometimes take a photo of them, but in such a way that you can’t identify the person (can’t see their face). If they are awake, I always talk to them – ask them their name, how they are doing, what they think about the weather or the Seahawks, whatever comes up. After the conversation, I sometimes (not always, kind of depends on the rapport we have or how I feel in general) ask them if I can take their picture. Often I compliment their sign (if any) and ask if I can take a picture of it, and they are usually proud and happy to oblige. Of course, I would never take their photo if they appeared doubtful or flat-out denied permission. I would totally understand that reaction, and respect it.

What I don’t do is ask if I can put their picture on Facebook or my blog. Perhaps I should. It would feel a little awkward and formal, creating a distance, breaking the rapport we’ve established. It would turn me more into a reporter, rather than someone who cares about them. I definitely would never post these on a general news site, popular website or program materials without getting their permission (I’m sure Rex has to get a signed release). I also don’t use them to raise any money or promote specific causes or events in any way. I do it simply to put a face with a name, a face on this problem of rampant homelessness in our community. But still, it remains kind of an open issue for me. I welcome your thoughts.

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