Images from the Streets: Art for Social Change from the Homelessness Photography Project

By Miller, Cynthia J. | Social Justice, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

Images from the Streets: Art for Social Change from the Homelessness Photography Project


Miller, Cynthia J., Social Justice


THIS ESSAY EXPLORES THE LANDSCAPE OF HOMELESSNESS, AS IT IS PHOTOGRAPHED by its inhabitants, and the ways in which the act of rendering that landscape visible can foster social change. Images from the Streets" is a photography exhibition, produced through collaboration between Emerson College and Neighborhood Action, Inc., in which all individuals who participate are among the unsheltered homeless--those who spend their nights on heating grates, under highways, and in ATM kiosks. The project and images discussed here will explore the processes and products of the Homeless Photography Project, examining the ways in which the photographers use the images they create as tools for exploring and communicating their experiences and identities, and creating a sense of belonging while living at the margins of the wider community.

At the outset, homeless individuals desiring to participate were supplied with disposable cameras and asked to record images of significant people, places, or occurrences in their worlds. The resulting sets of photographs expressed the shared and yet unique histories, angers, hopes, and visions of the photographers. The resulting images make clear that although individuals on the streets may live without the formal claim to place that inheres in the domiciled population, many use their physical and social environments, no matter how temporary, as tools with which to ground their identities. "Images from the Streets" demonstrates that whether one seeks to understand life histories or map death sites, nearly all knowledge derived from being "place-less" is, in fact, based in place. The act of reconnecting with that knowledge and sense of ownership through photography creates a powerful strategy for grounding individual lives in time and space, weaving threads of interconnectedness through events in the photographers' personal histories, and constructing a sense of belonging and community through the images that are created and shared.

Beyond serving as tools in the construction of a stronger sense of self and the valorization of personal assets so vital to change for the homeless individual, the photographs also served as a means of reconnecting homeless people with the wider community. Homeless individuals are often afforded little consideration in discussions of the life of a community and have even less connection to its sense of history and future, due to popular perceptions of their transience and their lack of status as "stakeholders." Their numbers and the duration of their time on the streets increase dramatically each year, resulting in more and more individuals falling to the margins of the community's policy and planning. As a public exhibition, "Images from the Streets" provided the photographers with an alternative channel of communication with those in the wider community, expressing their persistence within the community and offering a new grammar for understanding their experiences. Photographers selected and titled their own images for exhibition, thus providing a roadmap for viewing and interpreting the photographs. Many were present at a meet-the-photographers reception in their honor, where they could talk about their works with attendees. The subjects of the photographs chosen ranged from bucolic images of parks and urban wildlife, to depictions of personal affiliations and affective ties, to scenes of alienation and despair. Some reflected the unique perspectives of individuals at the margins, and others drew comment as disarmingly similar to photographs that might have been taken by a member of the domiciled community. This recognition of commonality and shared vision was striking to both photographers and viewers, replacing silence, avoidance, and embarrassment with conversations focused on vision, perspective, experience, and possibility.

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In addition to contextualizing these events, the essay also explores the notion of sustainability as it relates to the exhibition, highlighting the ways in which these steps toward social change did not occur in a vacuum or end with the exhibition's closing. …

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