One day I answered a call for volunteer writers to interview homeless people in Boulder, Colorado. The project, titled Until They Have Faces, is meant to create connection with and reinforce the humanity of the homeless in Boulder, Colorado. Sale of the photo essay book helps provide funding for community resources for the homeless.
On a rainy Thursday in July, I drove to Boulder and met David Page, a professional portrait photographer, at the Carriage House, which offers warm meals and counseling services for the homeless. It was nearly lunchtime, and the aroma of spaghetti wafted through the door. Adults and some children talked in groups of two or three as they waited for the lunch line to open. David explained to me what to expect, and what they wanted me to do. His wife Elle Page was the project coordinator for the book.
David was at ease and friendly with many of the people waiting for lunch. He had photographed some of them previously, and brought them an 8x10 copy of their portrait in a black photo folder for them to keep. The professional photos brought huge smiles. Others asked him if their photo was ready yet.
Joy, who works at the Carriage House, helped us to find people willing to be interviewed. It wasn’t hard. Three people expressed interest, whom I interviewed one after another. At the conclusion of the interviews, David snapped their pictures.
First I talked to Gregory, who had walked from Detroit to Denver via Florida in the company of his best friend, his three-legged golden lab. Next I talked to “Mary,” who is a victim of domestic violence and decided, after she had told me her story, that she was afraid to have her picture included in the book, so withdrew from the project. Finally, Grant was a twinkly-eyed, artistic-looking young man who had been homeless four times since his parents kicked him out of the house at age fourteen.
My task was to give voice to each person, helping them communicate their story—whatever message they wanted people to know about them. To reveal their uniqueness, their simple humanity. It wasn’t difficult, because of course when I talked with them individually, under a shade tree or in chairs upstairs in the Carriage House, they were regular people who had made choices at some point, or been given circumstances, that slid them off a more traditional life path.
I’m impressed with this project because I am the intended audience. I am a person who averts her eyes from a homeless individual, and the book worked its magic with me. I was stunned and inspired by these people and their stories: Their resilience. Their generosity to others on the street. Their not-so-differentness from me.
The project was also satisfying because I saw how organizations, churches, and a synagogue work together effectively and compassionately in Boulder County to meet the needs of the homeless.
In short, the project has changed me. At least it’s made me more often look into a homeless person’s eyes. The project sensitized me to the individuality and humanity of the homeless, as I hope it does for many people.
See the project blog, including some of David Page’s photographs, at facesforthehomeless.blogspot.com.
Copyright © 2013 by Mary Beth Lagerborg