My sister came to Los Angeles this past summer to visit us for the first time. It was really wonderful to have her here after all these years. But not long after her arrival she would inevitably see her first homeless person. Literally, her first. Yes, at 60+ years old, my small town Pennsylvania sister had never seen, in her life, an actual homeless person in the flesh.
It affected her deeply. At one point almost to tears. I don’t want to overplay this but it was obvious she was having a hard time getting past her sudden exposure to this ubiquitous part of the urban LA landscape for the first time. We had to work through it a bit and I’ll leave it at that.
After my sister left LA her reaction to seeing homeless people for the first time, and she saw a lot of them in the few days she was here, stuck with me. It called to mind how our mother reacted to the homeless problem in LA decades earlier.
My mom came of age in the Great Depression and had to quit school after the first grade to help support her family by picking cotton for 50 cents a day. Mom went on to be a business woman and active in politics, a heath inspector for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania… but whatever she did in life she did on the back of that one year of schooling and with ‘The Depression’ always on the tip of her tongue.
So I can’t recall that we ever drove past a homeless person with mom in the car without her calling attention to the situation verbally. It would be something like, “Look at that poor soul. We’re so lucky.”
I would love to be able to tell you that after a few years of this (or even weeks) my reaction to my mom’s unrelenting response to the sight of the homeless was limited to mere eye-rolls. I’m ashamed to say it was not. I pleaded with her to stop. Please, Mom. Just stop.
Thanks to my parents’ hard work and devotion to us, my sister and I grew up thinking we were rich. But growing up in the shadow of one of the largest steel mills in the world, and knowing I would most likely end up working there, which I did, began the process of disabusing me of the idea that I might be rich.
But it would be at music school in Boston, in my early 20s, when I more fully began to learn the score. The actual score. No pun intended.
Not only was I not rich, going to school in Boston showed me that I hadn’t even grown up in the American middle class. The ‘rich’ people in my hometown? They were middle class. At best.
So the point of this digression is this. We’re here in Southern California. That was no small accomplishment in and of itself. And we weren’t out in the valleys or outer counties. We were on the tony Westside. And we’re trying to ‘make it’ and anchor ourselves here and, little did we realize at the time, we would be doing so for the rest of our lives. That’s an entirely different story for another time. But the point, again, is this. We didn’t need to have our gaze constantly focused on human desperation.
We didn’t come from that and no, mom, we had never seen it at this level before either. But we needed to adapt. We needed to learn to react to the urban landscape in the way that the people who don’t have to worry about making it or anchoring themselves in Los Angeles do. Those are the people who were here before us. The people who will be here after we’re gone.
Without fully explaining Los Angeles or the coastal areas of California or even Manhattan to people who have never been here or there… there are a lot of those people. This is an affluent state and it is the most populous state in the country. And unlike the vertical cities back east the affluent of California live largely in single family homes. So the affluence is spread out. Far and wide. This is their state. It belongs to the affluent.
A long long time ago, in a place far far away, someone saw their first homeless person. But I’m not talking about someone like my sweet sister, or me, or my mom. I’m talking about the first affluent person who had the wealth and power to do something about that homeless person’s circumstances and didn’t. The first wealthy and powerful person to walk or ride by a homeless person and ignore their presence and their plight.
What culture and what economic system created that person? The person who thought it was acceptable? As I said, to be sure, it was a long time ago.
Homelessness was not, it turns out, acceptable to my sister. Literally, she could not accept it. And I guarantee you that she’s not alone and would not be unique in her visceral physical response to seeing people, for the first time, covered in rags and living on the street.
So my greater point is this. There is a difference in cultures in this country. We know that to be true in so many instances. Regional differences, economic and class differences, racial differences, political differences. But we should make no mistake (to borrow a phrase from my mother) in believing that there isn’t a very old culture of wealth and privilege in this world that decided centuries ago that homeless people sleeping somewhere on their streets was an acceptable or maybe just unavoidable aspect of life on this planet.
I believe the time is long overdue for the perspective of someone like my sister to come front and center into the conversation about homelessness in America. A perspective that doesn’t simply offer rhetorically that homelessness is not acceptable, but one that is literally not capable of accepting this failure of our own humanity.
I will not hold back from offering that I believe the further up you go in the economic ladder in society, the more acceptance there is of the societal failure represented by the presence of homeless people living on the streets. But the blame doesn’t belong solely to any one group or social class or culture.
The truth is, we accept the homeless and their suffering. We are inured to it. Someone maybe led us down the road to acceptance a long time ago but the truth is now that it is too many of us who find homelessness to be an acceptable aspect of modern life in America. It is not acceptable and never will be.
A note on photographing the homeless and my images. I shoot a lot of pictures as anyone who follows this blog knows. I therefore end up with a lot of images of homeless people. I don’t post most of those images. There is a notion that has been expressed by other photographers that it is questionable to make images of people at their worst and then publish those images to the world. The many reasons have been eloquently expressed by other street photographers. I don’t subscribe to their thinking, however, and I don’t agree with the basic arguments that are made.
But I also don’t frivolously publish pictures of homeless people for many reasons of my own.
I do think, however, that it is very important for street photographers at this time to photograph the realities of people living on the streets. I don’t think there is any one or even a few simple formulas for accomplishing this important photography. We all must bring our own creative aesthetic as well as our own motivations to the task of producing images that reveal this human disaster that is happening all around us. I will in the coming months expound on what I think matters about my images of the homeless. What matters about them in a photographic sense. Why I think and hope the images I choose to show do the job that surreptitiously taken candid photographs of the homeless should do.
Anyway. Today we inaugurate a new president. Seems this is a good day to make a change in the focus of this blog to more serious issues.