Global Lens Reflections on life, the universe, and everything

Not looking away

Carol, a woman who participates in the Church of Mary Magdalene, a congregation of homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle.

Homeless people make most of us uncomfortable. When we see them on exit ramps or city sidewalks, we change lanes, avert our gaze, suddenly remember to check for messages on our smart phones. I’m not sure why. Perhaps they remind us of our own vulnerability. Perhaps we’re afraid of the poor. So we look away.

Fortunately, there are some who insist on seeing the homeless. In 2005, the World Council of Churches asked me to photograph two church-related themes in the U.S. as part of a global look at faith expressions called “Keeping the Faith”, which produced a coffee-table book and a website. One of the two ministries I chose to document was the Church of Mary Magdalene—a congregation of homeless and formerly homeless women in Seattle. At the time, my old friend Pat Simpson was pastor of this unique congregation, and hanging out with the women for a few days gave me a valuable glimpse into their joys, challenges, and oftentimes their ordinariness—they weren’t that different from me or most people I knew, but for one reason or another they’d ended up on the streets. Wielding a camera and a recorder was a privilege, because it forced me to overcome society’s encouragement to look away.

A year or so later, I went back to shoot a calendar for the congregation. The idea was that a different homeless woman (in some cases with her kids) would grace each month, and the church would sell the calendars as a fundraiser. So I spent a day in a makeshift portrait studio in a big room at what was then First United Methodist Church in Seattle, and the women came through in 30-minute shifts. I don’t do this kind of work, but we were well paired, as they weren’t used to having their portraits taken, either. So we made it up together, and it was fun. Here’s one of the women. Carol brought her dog and her hand truck that she used to wheel around her worldly possessions.

My favorite image was one of a very pregnant woman, but somehow she slipped away without signing a release form. (Since the church was going to use the images to raise money, we needed to use those.) When we were deciding which 13 images to use (12 months plus one cover image), she was a natural for Ms. December. But the church staff couldn’t locate her to obtain her signature, so we couldn’t use the image. Like many fotogs, I can remember for years afterward photos that I missed capturing for one reason or another. I’ve fortunately had very few that I did manage to capture but couldn’t use. Sorry, I digress…

Opportunities like that calendar, as artificial a tool as it was, are important because they help us overcome our tendency to look away. Other folks are doing similar things, including exploiting the potential of social media to break down the self-imposed visual barriers. For an excellent example, check out the Facebook community called “Homeless in Seattle.” We need to stare into the stranger’s eyes, unafraid, and greet the Lord of Life who comes to us in each one.

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