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"To see true homelessness, one should look in their eyes, of everyone homeless, even my eyes." —Damian
Damian’s appeal to be visible — no longer treated as transparent and non-existent — is at the heart of “Through Our Lens – PhotoVoice Project,” hosted by Sisters of the Road Cafe in Portland, OR. This simple request for recognition is a plea for empathy and compassion; a direct inquiry into our humanity.
For most of us, the experience of feeling completely invisible and essentially forgotten is an unfamiliar one. We aren’t often confronted with this idea, and rarely are we asked to take a minute or two to consider what that must feel like. “Through Our Lens” provides this opportunity. As a project about vision and empowerment through image making, it brings these ideas into greater focus, and it gives us the chance to acknowledge them as a reality — for the photographers who participated in this project as a means to be seen, and to develop their own artistic voices.
In the Fall of 2016, Majo Sandi, a volunteer from Sisters of the Road Cafe, asked me if I would be willing to participate in “Through Our Lens” along with their community members. As a non-profit organization, Sister’s of the Road Cafe’s mission is to “create systemic change that will end poverty and homelessness forever by providing nourishing meals in a safe, dignified space.” The project resulted in an exhibition that is now traveling around Portland to be exhibited at a variety of venues.
My role in “Through Our Lens” was to create lecture-based training sessions to help community members learn more about the purpose of the project, and to communicate the fundamental concepts of photography. Participants were given a disposable camera to take their images. Each lecture began with an introduction to the project, followed by a brief introduction to street photography, with the intention of sharing a variety of images that included subjects and subject matter I hoped might connect with their own experiences. Additionally, I spoke at length about the importance of photographer’s rights, both in the context of their rights as citizens to be in public space and the protections we have when using a camera in public to express ourselves. To supplement this discussion, I made a booklet for each participant that contained a copy of “The Photographer’s Right” by Bert P. Krages II.
Together, we looked at examples of direct, consensual portraiture, as well as landscapes that may not have a clear individual subject. We also discussed the ethics of requesting permission to photograph someone when you feel morally compelled to do so, as well as exercising your right to photograph in public without ridicule or retribution. There are many intersections between the occupation of space and the act of using a camera, and while society has continued to further divide and distribute space, mainly along the lines of class and race, it has also stigmatized how cameras are used publicly and privately — leading to ever-increasing paranoia about photographers.
Whether it be the need for permission to photograph on private property, or our basic right to occupy public space without harassment, it is important to understand the rights of the photographer and their subjects, as well as the context in which they both participate in the making of a photograph. In the final images made for this project, you’ll see a stark dichotomy between public and private space as you follow these photographers throughout the streets of Portland and into their own, often hidden, sanctuaries — self-portraiture in moments of isolation.
In the sessions I led, I also focused on helping participants understand how to use a camera as a means to explore their day-to-day experience and feel empowered while doing so. Whether it be literal and descriptive, or abstract and symbolic image making, participants were encouraged to consider how photography may function as an ancillary act that provides insight into their lives, and a means by which to develop their voices.
A camera provides a unique opportunity for us to consider different ideas and various aspects of our experience; photographs are an extension of those considerations. When we walk down a street and suddenly find the viewfinder of our camera at eye level, focusing and framing the subject, and pressing the shutter, we find ourselves engaged in a “decisive moment” (a term that photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson coined 65 years ago). In that moment, the camera becomes a point of convergence where our ideas and experience intermingle, typically ending in the form of a photograph. Whether it is a physical print or a digital image, we can extend that moment and create something that can be further considered.
At the end of the project, each participant was provided with a set of prints from their camera and asked to speak about their images, and the act of making photographs about their experiences. There are so many important things I learned from the work made by the artists of “Through Our Lens – PhotoVoice Project.” Throughout these images, we get a glimpse into the experience of living in liminal spaces while seeking a sense of place. In many of these images and quotes, there is a sense of constant movement and uncertainty, juxtaposed with a desire for stillness and safety. In other images, we are given the privilege of seeing the documentation of cherished possessions that empower their owners, and hidden dwellings that must be assembled and disassembled daily, for fear of discovery.
If you aren’t lucky enough to meet Pheobe, Bekha, James, or Damien in person, I invite you to take this unique opportunity to experience the day-to-day of each of these artists, as represented through their images. Not unlike the designers and artists who may be reading this, each one of these photographers is asking you to consider what they’ve made. And, I can only imagine they hope for the same things that you do — that some aspect of their work resonates, inspires, sparks inquiry, or helps you to see them more clearly than before.
Black & White Portraits: Ian J. Whitmore
Interviews: Majo Sandi
All other images and quotes: Each respective artist