Photographer Robert Shults, who was homeless and living on the streets for several months in 2001, explains the ethical challenges of photographing homeless people, and points out good and bad examples of photo projects about them.
PDN: How have the homeless fared under the gaze of photojournalists?
Robert Shults: One of the issues homeless people face perpetually is that they’re [seen as] a monolithic group with a common experience and narrative. That’s not true, just as it wouldn’t be for any other group. But if I had to give a concise answer to the question, I would say: very poorly. With the caveat that my experience is not universal, the biggest difficulty I had being homeless was the psychological injury of living life entirely in public.
I had the advantage of being young and fit and healthy, physically and mentally, and it was only a few months I was living on the street. [So] the greatest injury I took away was not any physical wear and tear, but the pressure of being seen all the time, and not having the option not to be seen. When you add a camera to that mix [ie, start photographing homeless people], it is intensely fraught with problems, not just [problems] of consent, but empathy and cooperation. Being examined 100 percent of the time, being seen 100 percent of the time, is hard to take. (Learn more about how Shults portrays homelessness on PDN Pulse.)
PDN: During the time that you were homeless, were you ever photographed?
RS: As far as I know, I wasn’t. But the strategy of a lot of photographers, especially new photographers, is to work in this sort of, you know, this Cartier-Bresson, jungle-cat-stalking-of-their-environment where they go unseen or unnoticed. A lot of times people rely on esthetically questionable strategies to do that, [such as] standing far back with a really long lens: I’m going to be stealthy. As far as I know, I wasn’t [photographed] surreptitiously, but I’ll tell you it: It feels like I was. It feels like I was a thousand times over, every day [because of the] immense strain of being seen of every minute of every day, of having virtually nowhere to go to be unseen.
PDN: How should that inform how photographers approach homelessness as a subject?
RS: The value of documentary photography is about taking someone someplace they’ve never been before. I generally feel that very few essays on [homelessness] tell us something we don’t already know. It’s not as though viewers aren’t aware that homeless people exist. And it’s not as though they’re unaware of the difficulty of being homeless. I think when a photographer approaches it in a way that only displays what that person looks like, and what their environment looks like, there’s little that’s done there to actually generate any empathy, and certainly not to motivate any action. It essentially tells us something we already know.
PDN: So what might be a legitimate approach or reason to photograph them?
RS: I’m often very curious about the motivations of people that spent time photographing homeless people. And it’s a fairly common pursuit. People would decide to take up photography as a serious endeavor, and somewhere in that early stage they would imagine themselves digging deep into the human condition to reveal some truth that, perhaps in their naivete, they don’t realize we already understand. And I think in a lot of cases, the homeless seem like an easy target. They’re omnipresent, and they can’t really not offer consent.
The assumption is that if you’re in public, if you’re on a public street, then you’ve essentially given implicit consent to be observed. The difficulty with that is, for those who have no choice but to be in public, consent to be observed is not implicit. There’s nowhere else to go. They can’t revoke that consent because they can’t go inside.
PDN: Is there a legitimate way to get consent?
RS: There might be. Occasionally I will see a piece on homelessness that will resonate with me, and almost universally, that is a collaborative effort, and almost universally those tend to be long-term efforts. Someone is forging a relationship for a long period of time, and that relationship is the crux of the story. They’re actually investing in this person as a human being, rather than as a symbol for a particular condition. They are a homeless person as opposed to one of “the homeless.” But [most stories] tend to take us only to the surface, to depict what things look like. I personally find that less effective than constructing a photograph in a way that gives us some sense of what it feels like to undergo this [homeless] person’s experience. That’s a really tricky endeavor. But ultimately, those are the stories where I actually learn something new.
PDN: What it looks like versus what if feels like sounds like a fine line. It sounds like you know it when you see it.
RS: Right. I’ll pull something up and think: This works, this doesn’t. And I’ll have a very hard time articulating why. And that gets back to giving a lot more self-analysis to motivation: Why am I doing this in the first place? What I’ve perceived is that [someone’s decision to photograph the homeless] is usually a noble but broad, generic goal: I want people to know what’s happening here. I want to be the steward of this person’s individual narrative. [But] it doesn’t add a lot to the discourse. [Those photographers] often end up with something superficial, as opposed to saying, What happens inside this person when they go through this? I can feel what the photographer was motivated by.
PDN: Even if you get a homeless person’s explicit permission to photograph them, is that good enough? Or are they compromised to the point where they can’t even give informed consent?
RS: I don’t know. I want to point out, as a mea culpa: I am guilty, too. I started in the field long before I was ever homeless. And I have in my archive at least one photo that’s exactly of the sort that we’re talking about. As soon as I was handed the camera and told, go explore, I remember being caught up in the romanticism of: I can help, and my camera can help. And in fact, just after I finished making that photo, a pedestrian walked by and looked me straight in the eye and said, “What a terrible thing to do.”
PDN: The pedestrian criticized you for taking advantage of the homeless person?
RS: For having made the photo of this man sleeping on the street. I was like 19 at the time—and I remember thinking in my head: I’m helping him! The photo itself [is] compositionally strong, it has good esthetic and technical characteristics, but yeah, I look at it today and it says nothing that we’re not already aware of. And it takes me no place interesting.
So, the question you just asked: Is there any way to do that? I think that there is. Is there a way to get consent that’s never coerced? We might need to make our peace with that fact that there might not be. But I do think that people who have [photographed homeless people] successfully are people who have generally taken a collaborative approach, and generally narrowed their focus.
PDN: Can you cite some examples?
RS: We both looked at the work of Sam Wolson (“This Life I Lead” as samwolson.com). That actually resonated with me pretty effectively. That seems empathetic and respectful. It’s not about homelesseness writ large, and it doesn’t treat the problem or the population as monolithic. It is specifically about this one gentleman, Shanon Fulcher, and it focuses on him through several years of his life, and several periods of being both up and down. I think that’s one of the key reasons why this feels a little different.
PDN: I like Wolson’s work because it humanizes Fulcher, and gives him a life beyond his condition.
RS: Exactly. and it recognizes him as a person who has been homeless, as opposed to one of the quote-homeless. For some reason, “the homeless” is a term that we toss around, and what that does is it dehumanizes the group. I could get into a whole heady Marxist thing about how like, Well, that may be because American capitalism increasingly depends on us equating poverty with, you know, poor moral character, and it makes it that much easier for us [to say]: Well if they’re poor, they’re bad people, and therefore I wouldn’t worry about it. Sam Wolson’s piece in particular does help address that, because we’re looking at this individual. We have some sense of his experience and therefore we can start to empathize, and we can move a bit away from that equation of morality and poverty.
One other project that I remember resonates with me is by a photographer named Huag Qingjun. He had done a project in China just photographing families with all of their possessions sort of stacked up outside their house. And it was really a way to drive home the scale of the economics of China. At some point he had come to the United States and worked on a similar project with homeless people in California. And essentially they are these rather minimalist portraits of homeless people with all of their possessions—with everything that they own. So we’re starting to get a sense of: What does it feel like to rely on only these resources? That to me was a way to make visual what these individual peoples’ experiences were, and it also helped underscore the diversity of their experiences. They don’t have just one homogenous narrative. And again, they’re not photographed in their most vulnerable state, they’re photographed with something that feels a lot more like consent, because it had to be necessarily collaborative, and the photographer had to invest in these people. I think both of those projects seem to have found solutions for the issue of consent, as well as a way that actually feels motivational, [and] inspires some empathy, and a call to action because I start to care about these people.
PDN: Are there other examples that come to mind that have stood out to you as good or dignifying ways of photographing a homeless person?
RS: [Many stories ] I look at and say, this does nothing and in fact it might actually hurt. I know it would hurt the individual who was photographed, as well as hurt the cause a little bit. What happens more often than something that says, ‘That’s it, that’s how you should approach this,’ are collections right in the middle: this person had good intent and they just slightly missed the mark.
We both had a chance to see another piece [about] a population that lived essentially in the sewers in Ulan Bator, [which have] steam pipes that tend to be a warmer environment in the winter. I remember thinking: Oh, this is really promising, [because] the environment was his focus. Unfortunately, when I looked through it I still get a sense that the issues of consent are a little blurry. The piece increasingly focuses on people who either suffer from severe mental illnesses or have very severe substance abuse problems. Those are issues that I think complicate the matter of consent significantly. As the piece started to veer more into that territory I started to feel increasingly uncomfortable with it.
I [saw] another [project] by someone [who] built up a relationship with this woman and some others in her social network and began a series of portraits that are generally fairly effective. Esthetically they’re pleasing, and they do allow the subject to present themselves as they wish, at least to the extent that a homeless person can [do that]. And that to me starts to get [questionable]…because so much of our self image—how we can present ourselves, both in terms of our style, but also in terms of our composure, confidence, our sense of autonomy— is related to our economic capability. The goal here—let people present themselves as they wish—was great. But it doesn’t recognize that there’s a limited capacity to present oneself visually, when economic hardship is so deeply embedded.
I’m happy to move on to a few that I find genuinely and deeply objectionable, and little of redeeming value, if you’d like to do that.
PDN: Yes, I would like to do that.
RS: One that I know we both know is a project on what is commonly referred to as Skid Row, I believe in Los Angeles. As I flip through [the] photos, I essentially get nothing but the most superficial depiction of what homeless people look like. And really, that’s essentially it. [The photographer] has clearly worked to build some relationship, enough at least that she can approach her subjects rather closely. I think she’s mistaken optical or physical closeness with a sense of intimacy, that I will admit that I don’t feel. I do think, that unfortunately, the way that she’s chosen to structure her images actually feeds into this notion that poor people are poor because they’re bad people. I know that she herself doesn’t believe that by reading interviews with her and by reading some of her texts, but unfortunately the structure of some of her images, I think to an extent perpetuates that mindset. But more importantly, if the viewer holds that mindset, they’re not going to be able to let it go, to engage with the people in the photographs. I do get the sense that she sought out things that, on some level, ratified if not the beliefs that she already had going into this work, [but] the beliefs that many people already have about homelessness. And I don’t think it helps, in fact I think if anything, it might actually hurt.
PDN: What’s your reaction to the work of Tom Gralish, about homeless men in Philadelphia, that won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography in 1986?
RS: Esthetically it doesn’t feel that different from [the Skid Row] work, [but] this photo essay is from, it looks like 1985, if it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. And [the Skid Row] work is from the last couple of years. And so there is something that’s a little bit different about the context. First of all, [Gralish did his work] only a few years from the end of the Vietnam War, and I think it would resonate in a context that’s very different from today. Veterans’ ability to cope, and veterans’ ability to conduct their lives in healthful ways when they return, might have been a new issue at the time. Also, obviously that would have been the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and so, particularly among intravenous drug users, it might have resonated a little bit in that context. But [Gralish] also has the advantage of being, if not first, then fairly early, to say this sort of thing.
PDN: What’s your parting advice for photographers who are taking on the subject of homelessness?
RS: When I taught a couple of photo workshops for a few years, one of the things I used to recommend was an exercise from David Hurn, where he talked about how [to] go about selecting a subject. If people take that exercise, a lot of times they decide: maybe I just shouldn’t photograph homeless people. I think that one of the first things to consider is: Can I add something new to the conversation? And that’s consistent with Hurn’s advice. He has a few question to always ask: Is it visual? Well, [homelessness] is. Is it practical? One of the reasons homelessness is attractive as a subject is because it’s omnipresent, and there is a sense that these people can’t or won’t say No. The next question [Hurn] suggests photographers ask is: Is it a subject about which I know enough? And that is really critical. That, to me, is where that empathy and consent and collaboration comes from. What do I know about this issue? Do I know the raw statistics? Do I know what I see when I walk down the street in the town I live in? Do I know this individual that has a narrative that might potentially expand the discourse and might allow me to say something new? Have I invested the time to ensure that we’ve cleared up all the issues of consent? Am I going to be approaching this in a way that recognizes this person as an individual, and allows them to have a certain amount of autonomy, and even to some extent a certain amount of collaboration in what we’re doing? The next question that Hurn always asks is: Is it interesting to others? Does it say anything new?
The great street photographers, for a lot of us, are the first photographers that influence us: the sort of dashing, romantic, cigarette-and-a-Leica sort of explorer of human experience. That’s where we go first [as photographers], and it means we’re jumping into a situation that we really don’t know a lot about. So I think that’s what it is: just slowing down, analyzing your strategy ahead of time with some of the things I just mentioned. I think that’s the key. —Interview by David Walker
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