“So, you’re the photographer!”
It was my fourth night at an IHELP dinner at our church. I had been coming monthly to make portraits of any of the homeless men who volunteered and I had completed the first ten images and distributed them. I joined at the end of the supper line so that I could get some food and sit with the men. It was a good way to banter with those I’d already worked with and introduce the project to others.
‘I hadn’t met the man in front of me in line. He spun around as I walked up behind him and said, somewhat aggressively, “So, you’re the photographer!” Because of the tone, I somewhat tentatively stammered, “Yeah”.
Again, aggressively, “You know what they’re saying about you, don’t you?”
“No…what are they saying about me?”
“They’re saying it’s good luck to have a portrait taken by you!”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Didn’t you notice?”
“That six of the first ten people you shot have found a job and a place to live. They’re not in the program any more.”
I looked around and didn’t see a few of those familiar faces. I immediately felt trapped. If those men found jobs and housing, it had nothing to do with me and I didn’t want an expectation like that on my shoulders.
“Well”, I said, quickly, “that’s a coincidence.”
“No”, he argued, “It’s not a coincidence!”
“Hmm…are they using the portraits to apply for jobs and housing?”
“No, it’s not that either.”
Now, he changed the look on his face and I got that his tone was mock anger.
“Well, you seem to know what’s going on…what do you think it is?”
He paused and thought a moment. “That museum quality print that you give them…it has an impact. When they get into their sleeping bags at night, they put that picture under the pillow. When they wake up, they look at the picture rather than looking in the mirror. They say, ‘Hey, you’re a good looking guy! You deserve a job! You deserve a place to live!’ And with that new attitude, they go out and get a job. Six out of of ten! That’s three times the normal recovery rate! And, that’s why I want you to take my picture tonight!”
The power of self esteem
I was stunned. I said “Sure” but I was still trying to absorb this profound and beautifully articulated wisdom from a man I had clearly stereotyped as homeless, male and latino. I expected nothing from him, and in less than a minute, got the most important ‘ahah!’ of the “Inherent Worth and Dignity” project. A portrait… that sees past the mask and toward some more affectionate facet of the soul… is inspiring to the man and the people around him. Self-esteem goes up. I wouldn’t try to prove cause and effect, but the IHELP monitor says that over 50% of the 104 men I’ve photographed have recovered over the past 5 years….three times the normal rate.
This is the portrait that Carlos and I made for him…and, sure enough, he had an income and a place to live two weeks later. Thanks, Carlos…