What do you do when you see a homeless person? Dig into your pocket for a buck or two? Maybe you look the other way. (My life changing encounter with a homeless person in NYC is here: http://photoshopbasicsin6hours.blogspot.com/2008/07/photographing-street-people-in-new-york.html) Maybe you openly glare at them. If you’re San Diego’s Ted Myers, you sit down, spend time with them and take their portrait. This is why we've chosen him as our third flickr profile.
Myers has great empathy for the homeless. The first time I saw his work on flickr, I was blown away by the open joy on the faces, the wide-open smiles and this photographer’s passion for his subject that was a palpable presence on the other side of the lens.
Myers has good reasons for being empathetic. “Before her death, my wife was mentally ill. She suffered from drug and alcohol addictions. I used to think about that a lot. I used to think she would become homeless if I wasn’t there to take care of her.”
You won’t just see photos on Myer’s flicker Photostream. You’ll hear the stories they tell and somehow that makes the images more vibrant. I think it’s part of a bridge Myers is attempting to build between the streets…and you.
The woman in the image above is called the Christmas Tree Lady. Why? Myers says last Christmas she set up a tree on the sidewalk and all the homeless people decorated it. Isn't that amazing? The city had to take it down. Can you see the beauty of this story in her eyes?
See the negative space Myers has built into his portrait. Look at her eyes and TRY to tell me you don’t see something special there. Is this a woman who could possibly build Christmas memories for scores of homeless people?
I had to know how Myers connects so strongly with his subjects.
“The trick is all in the photographer personality,” he says. “The dollar may get you in the door. But after that, if you want their story, I find you have to share something with them. They like that. So I tell them about my wife. Then they really start to open up to me.”
You expect that homeless people understand tragedy. But do you expect them to smile? Laugh?
“The homeless have great features. Their faces make great close-ups. But I want this to be positive. So I always ask them to smile for me,” he says. “And I give them a dollar for their picture.”
See the life. Enjoy the detail built into every portrait.
Have a look at this man’s fingers. You’ll see nicotine stains. More than that you’ll see chunks of these fingers are missing. True to form, you’ll also see him throw his head back and laugh a few frames further down on Myer’s Photostream.
You don’t always need to see the face to understand the subject of a portrait. This guy has one treasured possession. He cradles his harmonica in scarred dirty hands. A portrait specialist like Myers is able to make those hands talk.
Looking at the image, do you have a sense for the man? What sounds do you think come out of that instrument when he raises it to his lips? Perhaps more telling: what do you think HE hears when he plays? I love the sensitivity of this image.
The man in the above image weighs 90 pounds now. He has diabetes. “He used to live in Las Vegas. But a guy lit him on fire while he was sleeping. His shoes melted onto his feet and he ended up losing a toe,” writes Myers. “He likes San Diego much better.”
“I want my portraits to be so close up you can see right into their eyes or hopefully even into their soul. But sometimes you can’t be too close or you won’t be able to see their big beard or wild hair.”
There’s no story that goes along with this one. It's my favorite shot from Myer’s Photostream. And I think that’s just as well because when I look at this face I feel a wellspring of emotion inside. I don’t know why exactly. There is a resoluteness to the face. There’s hope and a gut-level understanding of defeat. There’s intelligence and a very specific beauty as well.
“When I’m feeling depressed, sometimes I go downtown, just to talk with the homeless. For some reason, it makes me feel better,” says Myers. “They are great people and I love them.”
We know, Ted. We know.
Spend a few minutes with Ted’s friends on his flickr Photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22000114@N05/
NOTE: All photos in this blog segment are by Ted Myers and are used with his permission. He reserves all rights.