Program notes, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco December
This is a project in which 28
homeless people had their pictures taken where they lived or liked to
hang out and again after they had been made over to look like fashion
models. There was no satire intended. Rather, the idea was to show these
people at their peak. Further, I felt it would be so much easier for the
rest of us to care about people, and harder to forget them, once we knew
I still believe that, but I have now also to consider
the view from the other side. Lawrence Green, the first model who called
me after his case worker told him about the project, was upset by the
idea that his name might be linked to homelessness indefinitely. “What
happens after I get a job?” he wanted to know. “I’ll write
‘Happily Employed’,” I promised. But that was a flip answer. These
peoples’ lives are fluid, while the pictures capture and keep a 60th
of a second or less. Still, these pictures compare and contrast the
documented life to the invented one – the one that might be.
Some people whom I asked to contribute money or goods
to this project worried about what would happen after the models had
been made over and then had to go back to their real lives. These models
are complex adults as rich as reality. Just because they are in need
doesn’t make them simple. They shoulder extraordinary responsibilities
in order to protect their children from dangerous people or, like Mr.
Toshi who travels an hour and a half by bus each way to get his son to
school each day. Does that mean he can no longer imagine? Take a
holiday? Separate work from play? Do we insist that the homeless must be
genuinely helpless before we can assist them?
There are as many different kinds of homeless
individuals as there are housed. I hope this exhibit reminds us that the
homeless are not only the people we feel threatened by because they are
sleeping in a doorway we wish to enter. Or because they are begging for
money. Or that all homeless people become so out of stupidity or
shiftlessness. Twenty-five of the 28 people in
this exhibit showed up on time and worked well and hard.
I defy you to find the one who showed up six hours
late and drunk. She’s the one who holds herself like a professional
model. But she hadn’t washed her hair in three months and she arrived
at Architects and Heroes too late for a cut. She got ugly with the
make-up artist who had given her time and materials for free and might
have expected some appreciation. But the homeless are people just like
paying customers, they have sweet personalities and cruel ones. It’s
our vanity that wants people to be grateful for charity.
It was shocking, sometimes, to discover how easily
some people had reached their predicament. Richard Stephens was once one
of the guards who protected President Kennedy. Recently he had been
living a happy, productive life in Portland, Oregon, until he got hit by
a car one day and had to be hack-sawed out of his driver’s seat. It
took him years of hospitalization and therapy to become one of the
amazing recovery stories. But he had nowhere to go after he got out of
the hospital. He lives with a friend now and needs to work again. He’s
got aspirations to teach golf for a living. For fun, on Sunday mornings,
he teaches kids to play. I think he’d be good with kids.
His case worker, Danielle Lacampagne, at the
Veterans’ Administration Compensated Work Therapy Program, talks a lot
about the miracle she finds in each of her ‘survivors.’ These
miracles are made out of facing hard facts and surmounting them day by
day. The social workers I met were unending in the trenches helping to
make difficult decisions. Their organizations didn’t want to be
thanked in this exhibit. Many helped generously, but should the models
be unhappy with the experience the advocacy organizations want that to
be my fault, not theirs. I often had to say that before taking the first
pictures of someone who had come to me because their case worker had
told them about the project.
I had originally intended to select the models after
having met them and decided that I could make them over. It didn’t
work that way in practice. There wasn’t time. There wasn’t a way to
meet people. Instead, case workers at various advocacy organizations
asked individuals if they’d like to participate, and if so, they
called me up. With a few exceptions, I included whoever called me. I
simply made an appointment on the spot and went to take their picture.
It was impossible to get in touch with many of the models by phone. No
none had their own transportation, with the exception of one couple who
lived in their van. We should remember how much harder it is for a
homeless person to participate in society than it is for us. We should
give them double the credit when they do participate.
For me, the heart-rending person is Suny H. Roberts.
She’s the only model I met on the street. This was in July, when I
needed a picture to put on the proposal for this project. She’s the
only one who sleeps on the streets and eats at soup kitchens while she
waits for her boyfriend to get out of San Quentin, again. Suny has the
most beautiful face, life shines out of her. I met her once at the
Martin de Porres soup kitchen where she was having lunch. I guess
she’d forgotten I was coming because she wasn’t inside the door as
promised. Instead, she was sitting at a picnic table hovering over her
food with a hood over her head, but still I spotted her in the crowd
without trouble. Her small slice of cheek looked like velvet in a row of
It was that day she took a picture from her pocket
revealing a very unattractive, very overweight Sheryl Roberts. That was
Suny before the degenerative bone marrow disease that keeps her in
constant pain yet somehow ravishing. Suny wants to leave San Francisco.
She wants to go somewhere easier. I want to scoop Suny up and give her a
place to rest her bones and keep from getting a chill. But I can’t do
that by myself. I’m just a photographer who can introduce her to you.
This exhibit is one effort in a very large social structure.
I don’t want to undervalue this exhibit. I’m proud
of the community effort this represents. Grace Cathedral has been
astonishing in their caring and skill. I think the pictures challenge
our assumptions about appearance. Many of these people have a big gap in
their resumes, but so do mothers who take off work when they have
children. This project has been called controversial. I should hope so.
Grace Cathedral says they are hosting the exhibit in the spirit of open
discussion of important issues. I felt the same when I set out to make
this project. Having met the models, I have more hopes for their future
employment than I did beforehand, but for the rest of us and for
potential employers, I hope these pictures stir you up. For good or ill,
at last the homeless are then in the forefront of your thoughts. And
maybe you’ve got a better way to help.
Program Notes, City Hall, San Francisco August –
Most people who see these photographs think the people
in them are lovely. Sometimes the complaint is that the people don’t
change enough from street to make-over picture – to begin with, they
look too good. Another point that has been voiced is that not all
homeless people believe in make-up and pretty clothes. O.
K. These 28 models are not all homeless
people. They are among the homeless who want to be appreciated for their
skills and what they have to offer the community. They want to be a part
of it. The obstacles to making this happen are vast. These people are
getting training but they need transportation, too. They need the
confidence to be persistent and consistent. They need to be hired.
Don’t we all? If there is one ultimate goal in this exhibition it is
to remind us that these people are our neighbors. We need to remember
their names. We need to know them.
It took a huge effort from a lot of people to make Naming
the Homeless and while we were doing it we all said, if just one
person is helped seriously this will be worth it. What we didn’t
foresee was the effect the experience was having on us. The production
manager, Corey Nettles, left photography so she could go back to school
to become a teacher. After Naming her work seemed unfulfilling.
The project opened up the world of political journalism to me. I am now
working on a project about death row.
About a month ago I sent out letters to all the
participant models asking how they were doing and whether they’d like
to say so on camera for Scott Stender, the man making a documentary
about Naming the Homeless. The first call was from Tamieka
Alford, who said that she had a satisfying job working with homeless
prenatal parents and children. She is getting paid $6.50
an hour. Her son (who was 12 years old when I took
Tamieka’s first picture) is doing well. Patricia Davis was the next to
call. She, too, loves her work as a counselor for people who are
drug-dependent. She makes $8.00 an hour. She told
me I could tell Tamieka to call her because her clinic was hiring. I
believe Tamieka will stay on the track she started, but the notion of
her and Patricia networking had never occurred to me. Neither had I seen
how they both could have taken their worst experiences and turned them
into the basis for employment. I am deeply admiring of the way they are
working to support their children. There is a lot to be learned from
I know the many people who gave money and time and
clothes and food to make this project will be gratified to hear about
any of the homeless models as they strive and develop. I for one am
looking forward to the day Catherine Latta finishes her schooling and
becomes a nurse. I want to know if Rosemary McCord got into the
janitors’ union. I can’t find Larry Edmond. Is that because he
finally went home to his family after 13 years
away? I’m wondering if Richard Stephens applied to teach at the new
public golf course at the Presidio. Everyone I know who was involved
with this project is excited and curious when they spot one of the
participants on the street. I only hope the models can appreciate how
much they have expanded and enriched our lives. Thank you. Keep in
The best way to look at the success of the project is
by looking at what has happened to some of the participants in the year
since the pictures were taken.-L.G.
Kirstin Bain – She was living in Guerrero House. She is now supporting
herself in an apartment and recently left a job as a manager at Tower
Records to join the employee-owned cooperative at Rainbow Grocery.
Rosemary McCord – She was living in low-income housing and raising her
son, Fabien. She has a five-year lease she hopes she can renew. But the
city no longer pays her rent. She is now a janitor in a union, working
toward seniority and a permanent job in an office building.
Catherine Latta – She was in Raphael House. She has since started
the two-year program at Clara House and City College, where she is
training to become a Licensed Vocational Nurse. She is a year through
the program and very much looking forward to supporting herself and her
son in their own apartment while she studies another two years to become
a Registered Nurse.
Stephens – He was moving from relative to relative as he tried
recuperating from a near-fatal car crash which ended his career as a sky
cab with his own shoe-shine business. His physical therapy was
preoccupying. Now he has reconciled with his wife and they live in Cole
Valley. As a boy Richard was a golfer who competed on the circuit in the
mid-west. He now volunteers as a golf instructor to children in San
Francisco and acts as a marshal on a course in Burlingame.
Patricia Davis – She was a heavy drug user, with two children she
couldn’t look after. She is now a clean, responsible single mother who
loves her job as a counselor to drug-dependent individuals.
Tameika Alford – She is a third-generation welfare child. But after
having her own baby, she found work as a councilor with prenatal
homeless women. She is living in the Cecil Williams Glide Community
House and looking forward to becoming a social worker.
Lenora Hughes – She was a drug-dependent young woman living from
night to night in shelters that kicked her out during the day. Soon
after I took her picture, she called to try and frighten me into giving
her money. She has recently called again to tell me she’s been through
treatment for her drug addiction and she’s doing well.
“On Lucy Gray’s Photography”