I was in New York City last year walking around with my friend Amanda, when I noticed a man sleeping inside a cardboard box for the first time. We were walking through the park; the sun was shining and the grass was a dark, vibrant green. I noticed a large cardboard box resting on top of a bench along the left side of the park, but when I saw his khaki pants and his tennis shoes poking out from a box that covered his upper body, I stopped abruptly. Amanda and I looked at each other in disbelief, and niether of us said a word. My mind was racing, “I thought people were joking when they talked about sleeping in cardboard boxes… this must be a joke. Is this real?” I continued to stare at the man for a few moments before I stepped back and found myself slowly sitting down on a bench beside him. I was speechless. I suppose that the box offered a bit of shade from the sun, and the man seemed to be sound asleep. Amanda took a seat next to me, and I quickly made a decision. I lifted my camera to my eye… and from safely behind my lens, I examined his barely-worn tennis shoes and his almost-clean socks. His white khaki pants weren’t even a little bit dirty, and his yellow polo shirt had me asking myself if the man was homeless, poor or just tired. I still wonder as I look back at the image in my mind, but I’ll never know. I pressed the shutter button.
I’m reminded as I tell this story of a battlefield photographer whose work I studied in college. When people asked him how he handled the fear and anxiety on the front lines of battle, he said that he just lifted the camera to his eye. When he focused his mind on apatures and shutter speeds, composition and framing, it offered a distraction from the chaos that surrounded him. There have been times on the street that the reality I stumble upon is so gut wrenching and mind blowing that it’s an almost instinctual reaction for me to lift the camera. With my lens separating me from the photograph I’m creating, it starts to feel more like watching television than actually living in this mad world…
I looked down at the back of my camera as the image I had created digitally appeared on my screen. I knew it was what I call a “career photograph.” An image that would be remembered, burned into people’s minds long after they looked away… I stood up from the bench where I was sitting and carefully placed two pairs of socks next to the man who was sleeping. A gift for him when he awakes. I explained to Amanda as we walked away that I never wake people up when they are sleeping. I’ve been woken up too many times as I try to steal a nap in my truck… and I don’t want to do that to someone else. Ironic that I never asked myself how I would feel if someone took my picture while I was sleeping in my truck…
Late that night, we were walking around in another city park, passing out socks and bottles of water. A band was playing some wicked tunes to a crowd of more than 30 people, and Amanda and I had taken a seat on the pavement to listen. I was examining the members of the crowd, looking for people who might need help, when I noticed a scene down at the other end of the sidewalk. By the light of the street lamps I could see a man lying on the pavement, his head up against the brick wall that lined the path and his legs curled up against his body. His feet stretched out slightly into the path where people were walking, and the passersby were ignoring him as they kept to the right side of the sidewalk. I took a few steps closer and lifted my camera. Something didn’t feel right. I examined the scene through the safety of my lens and something was bothering me. The lights of the city were a mess of sparkles in the background, and two college-age boys were walking into my frame. I pressed the shutter and held my breath during the long exposure, desperately hoping that I didn’t shake the camera. I felt the shutter release and moved my camera away from my eye. The boys that were walking past us were smirking. I realized Amanda was standing next to me again and she snickered. “I think the boys thought that you were photographing them.”
I watched as my image appeared on my digital screen. It was beautiful. The two boys were slightly blurred, the lights sparkled, and the man… asleep. His face and body dark in the shadows of the street light, only the glare from an upright water bottle placed in front of his chest to illuminate his presence in the image. For the first time I found myself examining his dress shoes and his gray dress pants, wondering why the hell this man was sleeping this way, on the sidewalks of downtown New York. The questions were reeling in my mind, and I fought off the desire to go wake him up and talk to him… I looked at Amanda and her face read my own emotions. “So you’re not going to go wake him up?” She asked me. I shook my head, confusing my spirit as I did so.
A few days later as I created the album of 11 images that I would load onto facebook, my heart was beig ripped to shreds. These two images were powerful, undeniably beautiful in composition and color… they spoke volumes about the ignorance of the public and the desensitization of our culture. They spoke about poverty and sadness. They spoke of loneliness and hopelessness… And my heart was broken. When I published the album to my friends, I asked if they should be published on a larger scale. I asked if they should be published to the 14,000 people on my Project 50/50 Facebook page. Out of more than 20 responses, all but 3 or 4 people said that it would be an injustice not to publish them and that the world needs to see the truth. I asked myself what the truth was… and if these images actually spoke to that truth.
Three of the responses explained that I needed to ask God or ask permission. As long as I asked them, and explained my project, it was fine to publish them. I thought of the nine other pictures in the album in which the people were awake, they were cognizant, I had explained what I do and talked to them about the project. I had explained why I take the pictures and asked them for a photograph. Like Liz, who I had met in the park while giving away socks. I had asked to take her picture, and she had said “But I look like hell!” touching her hair and asking me for a hair brush. Amanda had a comb in her purse and handed it to Liz. I told her that her hair looked fine, and that she looked beautiful. She laughed at me and I took her photo while she was smiling. When I flipped the camera around to show her the photo, I’ll never forget the look on her face….
She stared at her image on the camera and touched her face. “That’s me? Wow…” her voice was soft and thoughtful. She ran her hand through her hair and her eyes never moved from her image. It was like watching someone look in the mirror for the first time in years. “I am beautiful…” she whispered. I smiled and her eyes met mine. They were teary and grateful. The power of a beautiful portrait.
Another photo in the album was of a kid named Tadpole. His real name is Ben, and as we sat with him and his friend Mole on the sidewalk for a half hour while he tried to raise enough money to begin traveling west, a woman stopped to talk to us. Her name was Elle, and she asked the boys if they needed new shoes. She asked what size they wore and offered to run across the street to a shoe store and get them some new shoes. She told me that she has children the same age as these boys and that she can’t imagine what has brought them here to this street corner. She couldn’t walk past them without doing something to help. She handed Tadpole 20 dollars before crossing the street to the shoe store.
A photo of Jack, while he was stretching on a new pair of socks, will always touch my heart. Jack was barefoot when I met him, and told me that giving him those socks was the first nice thing that anyone had done for him in a very long time. The joy on his face as he put on the new socks was undeniable, and he carefully placed the extra pair in his bag for later. I tried to offer him more, as I had countless pairs of socks in my book bag, but he asked me to pass them along to someone else like him, who had been struggling to get just one pair for the last few days.
Those images were powerful, and I had asked permission and been present with the people I was photographing. They have names and stories and a moment of truth mixed in with great composition and color. I had a long conversation with Shane about the two images in the album that I was questioning. He told me that God used my camera to create those images, and he didn’t make them so that I could file them away and never show them to anyone. I heard the truth in what he said. I’ve always believed that God and Roxy (my camera) team up to make these images, and all I do is press the shutter. But the question truly was “Did God create these images so that I could publish them online, or for some other purpose?” Maybe to teach me something… I called my mother, who asked me “What exactly was bothering you about the two images you keep bringing up?” I told her that it might be because I had not talked to the people in the photos. I didn’t know their name, their story, or anything about them. I made a decision to publish the nine photos of hope, and leave the other two out of the album until God brought me some clarity.
A few weeks later, I was in Delaware. I had a truck full of socks, and I pulled up to the parking lot of a local mission in Wilmington. I realized that there were probably more than 40 men hanging out under the overpass right next door, and grabbed 4 packages of socks from the back of the truck. I hesitated when I realized that I was about to walk under a bridge full of 40 men, alone. I put Zuzu on her leash and asked God if this was a good idea. I listened. This time God didn’t appear in a whisper, he appeared in the soft, soulful tune of a man singing a hymn under the bridge. The notes were carried to my ears by the wind, and I smiled to myself as I started walking. God is awesome.
I met a man named Marvin, an African immigrant who saw me coming around the corner of the fence and looked at me like I was crazy. I tend to gravitate toward that expression, as though men who are afraid for me are less likely to be the person I need to be afraid of. I stood next to him as he leaned on the stop sign and he asked me what the hell I was doing under this bridge by myself. He pointed out the crack dealers and the addicts that I should probably stay away from, and he called his friends over to get clean socks. He told me I couldn’t take his picture, and I respected that. As I gave socks to everyone under the bridge, I noticed an older black man sitting on a lawn chair reading the paper. Marvin told me about him, and said that everybody calls him grandpa. He sits in that same spot everyday…
Delancie was reading the local part of the paper when I walked up to talk to him. He had found a spot under the overpass that wasn’t going to drip water on his paper, and he was smiling to himself under his silver rimmed glasses as I got closer. I introduced myself and he looked up at me, folding his paper closed and looking at me expectantly. “What are you doing down here little girl?” He asked me with a look of amusement on his face. I laughed and told him I was giving away socks and taking pictures. “Taking pictures for what?” he asked. “For the internet, for a story about my life and travels…” I said. “Your travels! Where do you travel to?” He seemed genuinely curious and I pointed at my truck. I explained the project and what I do, and he gave Zuzu a pat on the head. “Well that’s mighty nice of ya,” he said with a chuckle. “You can take my picture if you want.”
Awesome. I didn’t even have to ask! I knew it must be a God thing… I took a few steps back so that I could include the lines from the curving overpass and the support poles that created a few nice lines in the composition, and I noticed something else. A man was asleep with his back to me, on a pile of old cardboard surrounded in a puddle of leaking rain from the overpass above us. The way he was stretched out perpendicular to where Delancie was sitting was a stark contrast to the vertical lines from the support poles and the curving overpass. I took one more step back to include the entire puddle of water in my image and looked through the lens. As I pressed the shutter I knew… It was another one of those “career photographs.”
My heart sank. Why was this happening? I was already in turmoil over images like this… why would God line it up so perfectly for me to be so broken hearted about sharing this image? In the midst of my frustration I had enough clarity to show Delancie the photograph. He smiled and pointed at himself. “That’s nice!” he said. It didn’t help ease my soul. I looked around as the group of guys were starting to migrate toward the shelter on the other side of the fence, and realized that it was getting close to lunch time. I couldn’t take my eyes off this man asleep on the cardboard. I heard my own voice in my head from the conversation I had on the phone with my mom after New York. I slowly walked over to the man asleep on the cardboard. I walked around so that I could see his face. He looked miserable. I leaned against the wall a few feet from his head, and looked up the sidewalk at Marvin. He had a look on his face like “what are you doing?” But I just smiled… and lowered myself to the sidewalk.
I sat next to the man for almost a half hour, asking myself a thousand questions about who he is and why he is passed out on these pieces of cardboard. I could smell the alcohol from where I was sitting, and I watched the rain drip from the overpass into the puddle surrounding his ‘bed’. He began to stir in his sleep, and I looked to see if Marvin was still at his spot by the stop sign. He was, and he was watching me intently.
When the man opened his eyes, I said hello. He blinked a few times and pushed himself up off the cardboard enough to look at me. My heart was racing. I had no idea what I was doing. “Sir, I took this picture of you while you were sleeping,” I said as I turned the camera around to show him the digital image on the screen. I wonder how he would react to this?
He blinked a few times and looked closely at the image. He reached out his hand and began to nod as his finger touched the image of himself asleep on the sidewalk. “Oh yeah, that’s me. The Bum.”
He cleared his throat and smacked his lips as he tried to wake himself up. “yup. The Bum. that’s me…” he pulled himself to upright. I felt the sudden urge to protest his own description of the image. “You’re not a bum! No, you’re more than this,” I said out loud, realizing that I was fighting the very image I had created. “What happened, what’s your name?” I asked him. He looked at me sideways from an upright position on his makeshift bed and gave me a half smile. “I’m Mr. Hart,” he said as he extended his hand. “HART not HEART. and I guess I needed a nap.” He chuckled.
I shook his hand and stayed quiet, despite my desire to ask the thousand questions in my head. Mr. Hart took a deep breath as he began to explain why he had found himself under this overpass, and what the last few days of his life had been like. As we stood up and walked toward Marvin at the stop sign, I asked him if he needed any socks. He smiled at me and nodded, showing me that he had no socks under his shoes. I pulled two pairs out of my bag and handed them to him. When we reached Marvin at the stop sign, he talked to Mr. Hart as though he knew him well. “Have you been talking to this girl? She’s pretty cool. She give you some socks?” He asked. Marvin asked to see the picture that I had taken of Mr. Hart and Delancie, and Mr. Hart nodded at me to show him the picture. I did, but I suddenly didn’t care if it was a “career photograph”… I didn’t like it. “Can I take a different photo of you? A better one, where you look like yourself?” I asked. Mr. Hart smiled. “You mean you don’t want the Bum picture?” he laughed. I lifted my camera again after his chuckle and pressed the shutter.
Just thinking about that moment does something to my heart. I turned the camera around to show Mr. Hart the new picture of himself, and he tapped the screen… “Yeah! That’s me!” his voice was almost surprised. Marvin looked at me with wide eyes. “You take good pictures!” he said. I laughed and gave them both a hug before they headed off to lunch. I promised myself that I would never show anyone the first picture without the second picture there to tell the story. For the purpose of telling the story. The story… the story… I was getting somewhere. Clarity was getting closer.
When I was in college studying to become a photojournalist, I was always amazed at the realization that permission is not required to publish a photo. One of my teachers trained us to “always take the photo, decide what to do with it later.” And that’s probably good advice. But there is something to be said about the WAY we take a photo. For example, on the streets of Portland, Oregon, I sat with two street kids that I was doing a photo essay about (a photo essay is a series of photographs that tell a story about a person or an event) while they were panhandling. Brian was playing the guitar when a guy who was passing us on the sidewalk stopped and snapped a photo. He didn’t say a word, he just took the photo and kept walking. Brian yelled at him to stop and the guy turned around to look at him. Brian said “Dude, what the hell? You can’t just take my picture and not even say hi.” The guy’s mouth dropped open and he stuttered a response… “oh, well I was just…. It’s for Facebook. It’s not a big deal” and Brian responded. “It might not be a big deal to you, but dude this is my life. I’m not a critter at the zoo.” The guy stuttered and stumbled over his words until we looked away and he continued walking down the sidewalk. Brian just rolled his eyes at me and shrugged. Keep in mind, these two kids gave me unlimited photographic access to their lives and are my facebook friends. They love the photo essay and have commented on it numerous times. Brian wasn’t irritated at the photograph itself, but the manner in which the photo was taken.
I was personally “drive-by photographed” on the streets of Detroit and in Anchorage, Alaska. One guy walked past my spot on the sidewalk with his camera at waist level, pressing the shutter button with his pointer finger without looking at us. As if we won’t notice the sound of the click. He even looked back over his shoulder with a snicker. I’ll never forget being in a New York City subway when this happened to an older man playing the saxophone. Only a few moments after the man had told me that I couldn’t take a picture of him, (and I had moved my camera behind me over my shoulder out of respect, so that he could relax) a college-aged kid wearing a pink polo shirt stepped up to where he was sitting and snapped his picture. The blinding white flash lit up the subway, and by the time I had blinked, the pink polo kid was already walking away… The man who had been photographed jumped up in a rage, chasing the kid… The sound of his screaming voice has never left my mind. It was the sound of a deep wound, a gut wrenching pain, the removal of dignity and all that is sacred. He wailed his voice toward the kid in the pink polo… Screaming “Why would you do that to me???”
So there is something to be said for the manner in which a photo is taken. For me, it’s determined by my value system. I place “love & respect for all mankind” at the top of my priorities, so any manner of photography that removes respect or ignores dignity, and does not demonstrate love, is not going to work for me.
I took a class in college called “Ethics in Photojournalism.” I’ve drawn on this class throughout my adult life, but there are certain struggles I remember vividly. The professor would post a picture on the screen at the front of the class; usually a picture of something that would elicit a gut wrenching emotional response, and then he would ask a question. “Publish? Or don’t publish?”
As you can imagine I struggled with this immensely. The images were different every class period. It could be a picture of a woman holding the dead body of her son, a picture of corpses left in a battle field after a war, children with distended bellies and flies in their eyes, or bodies falling from the World Trade Center. As the editor of some imaginary newspaper, we were told to decide what to do with the picture. We had the freedom to publish under stipulations, (like permission from the families) or wait a certain amount of time, But the question was always the same. Do we publish, or don’t we?
I was astounded at the frequency of a “publish” response from my classmates. The reasoning was almost always the same. “Because the public has the right to know!” I almost always voted to publish only with permission from the families. To which I was told “the family won’t give permission for that!” and I figured that was my point exactly, but I was told by my classmates that I would never make it as an editor. It was the first time during my 4 year study that I started to wonder the same thing myself. Now, every day that I’m out here with my camera, I realize I continue to struggle with job titles and their implicit meanings. In the same way that I would rather be called a “Jesus Wannabe” than a Christian, because of the bad rap that Christians have gotten with their hypocrisy and judgment and anti-everything stances, I would rather be called a “Profit-Free Photographer” than a Photojournalist because of the poor ethics that I’ve witnessed within the field of photojournalism.
The bottom line with photojournalists, (despite working in a field that doesn’t pay well) is that good images equal paychecks, (or in the non-profit world, donations) and maybe even more importantly, notoriety and fame. Everyone in my PJ classes wanted to have their image and their name in a text book someday. And they wanted to get paid. That’s business! But I’m not in the business of making money and getting famous, I’m living a lifestyle of spreading hope and love. So I believe that while a good photographer might take a stellar image, a great photographer will be willing to set that stellar image aside in favor of good ethics.
All I want from my life these days (thanks entirely to good influence from my wonderful mentors and the life and message of Jesus Christ) is to meet people and LOVE people. To live a life that looks like Love, and to live simply in the light of that Love.
That means that I will not sacrifice the dignity and self-worth of the people that I encounter in the name of a “cause.” This grace occurs in the moments that we take the image and ensure that people are aware their photo has been taken and what the photo will be used for but also in the moments that we publish the photo. Does it tell a story of Love, light, faith and hope? Does it speak of generosity, compassion, consideration, and joy? These are my values, and I want my values to be clearly visible in my images. I described many images in this post but did not publish all of them, because it would be unfair to the people I have photographed. In some cases it would remove their dignity, and in others, the photo speaks to despair, sadness, tragedy or hopelessness. That’s not the message that I wish to portray to my audience.
When a photographer, videographer or journalist is given a place of notoriety and an audience that will listen to us, we have an even greater responsibility to protect the people that we are documenting through our work. That means protecting privacy, protecting dignity, and protecting the story itself. The people that we are documenting are the very essence of why we are here, doing what we love and loving what we do. Too often in the non-profit world, people are turned into numbers and data that will add up to more grants and more funding. Sometimes, images are just another way to turn someone into a number. But people are so much more than their images! We are more than a snapshot of our lives. A photo is not the whole truth about us, and our image is not to be abused or sacrificed for some ‘greater good’ or a greater ’cause’. We ARE the cause. The people…. We must never forget that.
And we must be responsible! The internet is a tricky media. Once a photograph has been uploaded to the web, it can easily be right-clicked and saved on a desktop. Even with the best watermarks and protections, it’s not that hard to steal an image from a site. Before publishing a photo, I must think twice about how that image could be used by someone who operates with different ethics. Last November I wrote a blog about an image that I captured. It was one of those ‘sleeping people’ photographs that I’ve since learned to place somewhere else for God to use in discussion and education regarding what not to do in profit-free photography. But I had written the piece as a letter to a friend, who asked to publish it on his blog. I thought heavily about it before agreeing, and decided that God would use it somehow for His glory. Well, I learned a lesson when I got an email from a non-profit organization who wanted to use the photo as the background of their website! I told them to READ the blog, as it was written about this problem exactly, (photos that turn a person into a stigma, an idea or a label rather than a human being) and that they would find their answer right there within the post. They never used the image, but it was a lesson that once an image is online, people can use it for whatever they want. I must protect the people in my photographs from exploitation.
I recently went through my albums on FB and on the website and double checked my work. I removed images that spoke to the darker side of life, and left the ones that spoke to hope and love. If anyone ever finds an image that they believe sends the wrong message, let me know! The image will be immediately removed. These images are simply gifts to the public, and if the image doesn’t speak about my values, I don’t want it online any more than you do. I imagine a world where we keep our eyes on the brighter side; a world where we use hope and our great desire to see more light as motivation for action, rather than the threat of what will happen if we don’t.
This dialogue and these experiences have made me a better photographer, and I hope that it will give some guidance to the loving people out there holding a camera with the intent to rock the world. Create an ethical structure first, and carry it with you into the field. Honor, respect and value the person that you photograph, and protect them when you go to publish. You’ll sleep better at night, trust me.