v5.2 / Jeffrey Wolin, Faces of Homelessness / Portraits

Homelessness, in Chicago-based photographer Jeffrey Wolin’s new series, does not mean living without a home. As David Busch, one of Wolin’s subjects, points out: “With or without a house, if you are not comfortable living in this world as a giver, you are homeless.” Wolin’s subjects, photographed in Chicago as well as in Los Angeles, are givers in the most obvious sense: they share their faces and their thoughts. But many of them have given in multiple other ways: David, who for twenty years has been eating the food wealthy people throw away, has organized “Food Not Bombs” collectives, sharing vegan and vegetarian food with others; Melodi Serna, survivor of a long history of partner abuse, volunteers at her children’s school; Thomas Gordon used to cook for the (now demolished) Uptown Tent City in Chicago; and Vinnie DiGaetano shares his art with others, just as a painter on a boardwalk once shared his knowledge with Vinnie.

Thomas Gordon, Chicago, 2018 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

Jeffrey Wolin has long been interested in the photo/text format. He is widely known for his Pigeon Hill project which began in the 1980s as a series of black and white portraits of the residents of a low-income housing project on the west side of Bloomington, Indiana, where Wolin lived and taught photography. More than twenty years after completing the first series, drawn by the murder of one of his former subjects, he went back to Pigeon Hill to re-photograph over 100 of the people he had worked with in the 1980s.

The two series combined offer a poignant meditation on the realities of poverty and on what the passage of time does or doesn’t do to it, on the permanent struggle for a life of decency against odds decided by other people. Wolin’s subjects provided him with comments on both their old portraits and the new ones, comparing their past and current situations, creating narratives which Wolin then added, in his own handwriting, to the prints: bands of words that often remind me of the marginal inscriptions on medieval altarpieces. In Wolin’s work, the images and the words reinforce each other, but the handwriting lends these photographs a provisional quality, similar to the lives the people portrayed in them lead, from one paycheck to the next, always one imperfectly averted disaster away from being worse off than they were before.

Timothy Babbs with Ferret, Pigeon Hill, 1991 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

In Wolin’s portfolio Written in Memory: Portraits of the Holocaust (1991-95), the narratives of Holocaust survivors had filled half or, in some cases, the entire background, the text encroaching on the picture, as a reminder that these people are their stories, that for them the burden of past traumas is a current reality. In Pigeon Hill, Wolin reduced such texts to a minimum, leaving most of the storytelling to the images themselves: the bullet wounds in the thigh of a veteran, shot not in war but, for no apparent reason, by a drunk urinating in front of his kids; the ferret nibbling on the neck of the shirtless, wide-eyed teenager freshly expelled from high school; the thin legs, bruised and scratched, of the blond little girl showing off her only dress, part of the daily display she puts on to hide the fact that home, for her, means being beaten on a regular basis. Wolin’s presence is palpable, not only as the handler of the camera but more directly, through the notes he has added, in his own handwriting, to the finished prints. Each of these photographs is, thus, a collaborative work. This fact alone separates Wolin from earlier documentary photographers like Dorothea Lange whose images, as Jackson Arn argues, cry out for additional context.

In Faces of Homelessness, Wolin continues to experiment with narrative and image, but the results are markedly different from his previous work. The images are now digital, as in the second Pigeon Hill series; they are in full color; and, most conspicuously, the added text is now printed, not handwritten. When he was working on the first Pigeon Hill series, Wolin took people’s portraits wherever they happened to be, inside or outside their homes, sitting on chairs, in their cars, or on motorcycles, as if they had just paused what they were doing for a quick snapshot. The casual nature of the portraits is reflected in the way details are handled—note the head of the child next to Timothy Babbs in the picture above, cut off just below the hairline. Twenty years later, for the majority of Wolin’s subjects, things hadn’t changed all that much. In many instances, their surroundings still weren’t what one would normally choose for a portrait: a jail, a parking lot, the area behind a drab apartment complex. Some of them might have just given up worrying about what was behind them.

Cecilia Magaña Flores, Chicago, 2020 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

That logic does not apply to Faces of Homelessness. Consider Cecilia Magaña Flores, who has positioned herself next to a colorful “Dìa de los muertos” mural featuring the classic woman’s face in white make-up, lips stitched shut. The sweater Cecilia has chosen for the picture shows Our Lady of Guadeloupe. Both images broadcast female resilience. The Day of the Dead celebrates the empowering presence of the dead, while the Guadeloupe story, in its essence, is about a woman ordering around two men (a Mexican peasant and his bishop) so that a church will be built in her honor. Taken together—the wall, Cecilias’s shirt, and Cecilia herself—the image acquires additional meaning. Showing “yourself and your children that Mommy can do it” might seem, given the circumstances, a task beyond the capabilities of one person. Which is why this photograph gives us not one but three faces—Cecilia multiplied, a real Superwoman. Gone are the quotation marks around the added text—because it’s no longer an addition but an integral part of that radiant composition, a point underscored by the bright red color Wolin has chosen as the story’s background.

Strong in spirit, Cecilia is homeless only in a technical sense. While Wolin never minimizes the soul-crushing reality of the experience of homelessness, he wants to emphasize that his subjects deserve the viewer’s respect and admiration. In another installment of the new series, David sits inside his pristine white tent, in front of a white wall, his story attached to the wall behind him, printed on a white background, as if it were a museum label. But David is not on display, he is not an ethnological exhibit. The flap of the tent is open just wide enough to reveal him inhabiting a world that seems complete within itself. He sits in Lotus position, serene and centered, his flowing hair parted in the middle, a “Be Love” sign wrapped around his neck. The one unruly color, the only disturbance of that serenity, is the red tape. The tape attaches notes that ask the police not to remove his tent.

David Busch, Venice Beach, 2020 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

There is nothing accidental about these new portraits or the stories incorporated into them. The patriarchal-looking Andon Kostov from Bulgaria remembers, to the day, when he left his native country to save his life (“Friday the 13th in 1985”). Homeless before he became homeless, Andon recites, with precision and entirely without self-pity, his life’s journey (a tough job lost because of illness, followed by another job that led to even more illness). His large hands, pressed against his chest and stomach, dominate the portrait, hinting at the pain, mental and physical, he has experienced; his right hand appears to touch his story, asserting his connection with it. However, unlike Cecilia, Andon, his eyes squinting toward something outside the frame of the picture, does not face the viewer, as if to remind us that neither photograph nor story contain him. While Andon’s immediate needs are now being met—as indicated by the terse last sentence of the narrative (“They provide me with medical services”)—Wolin lets us know that Andon cannot be simply reduced to his illnesses. The rich, leafy background, with branches radiating out from the center of the picture, creates a kind of halo around Andon, as if Wolin had wanted to pay tribute to the religious icons of his home country.

Andon Kostov, Chicago, 2018 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)
Melodi Serna, Chicago, 2019 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

In her portrait, Navy veteran Melodi Serna likewise turns her head away from the viewer, but this position highlights her chiseled profile, shaped by generations of proud Chippewa ancestors. Wolin took her picture in a back alley, bordered by a long bare cement wall on one side and a litany of fire escapes and backdoors of apartment buildings on the other. The empty alley offers a visual equivalent for the long road Melodi has traveled to get here, through sexual assault, attempted murder, a wrongful conviction, and domestic abuse. Despite her experiences, Melodi stands straight, unbowed. Note the difference between her posture and the crumpled shadow she casts: Melodi has emerged from the grasp of her darker past. A white paint spill on the wall appears to replicate the outline of Melodi’s body, illuminating it, while the textual insert next to her reinforces her upright, defiant stance: “I don’t need a dollar, I need a job.”

In his new series, Wolin undermines whatever preconceived ideas we might have about homelessness. His subjects define their environments, rather than allowing themselves to be defined by them. Vinnie DiGaetano, for example, is not just an artist. In the bare landscape of a hot California beach, he is himself a walking work of art. From the blobs and dots and squiggly lines lavishing his clothes to the tips of his paint-splattered shoes, Vinnie looks like a Jackson Pollock canvas, freed from the wall and gone on vacation. In similar fashion, the aspiring transgender musician Nikolas Taylor Wilkens-Hays is shown leaning against the shiny, reflective walls of the Chicago Riverwalk, the backdrop to a life that is on track again, marked by a new identity, new ambition, new courage, and new hope for the future. Chicago lingers in the distance, both the desired destination and postscript to Nikolas’s dreams.

Vinnie DiGaetano, Venice Beach, 2019 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)
Nikolas Taylor Wilkens-Hays, Chicago, 2020 © Jeffrey Wolin / (Click image to enlarge.)

“We are not all the same,” declares Vinnie in his story, mocking stereotypical notions of homelessness. Wolin’s series confirms Vinnie’s assertion, giving each of the people he has portrayed iconic, heroic status. His sparing use of focus freezes his images: rather than capturing passing, personal impressions of his subjects, he monumentalizes, pays tribute to them. He is their photographer as well as their scribe, doubling the labor he expends on each image. One tends to think of homelessness as determining, dominating a person’s sense of self and self-worth. Wolin dispels this myth. Combining images and words, fashioning intricate dialogues between his subjects and their environments, Wolin’s subjects aren’t just the protagonists of these multimedia narratives but their co-creators. Hence the printed, rather than handwritten, labels, suggesting permanence. There’s nothing preliminary or provisional about Faces of Homelessness. The impulse to treat homelessness as an embarrassing predicament that is best forgotten, should one be able to overcome it, undercuts the dignity of the people who experience it. They are who they are, regardless of where they are, regardless of where they have, in the fullest sense of the phrase, found themselves.

—Christoph Irmscher

Faces of Homelessness / Portraits
by Jeffrey A. Wolin

Much of my work as a photographer deals with individuals who have experienced trauma in their lives. I have engaged in a long-term portrait series of Holocaust survivors (Written in Memory: Portraits of the Holocaust); American and Vietnamese War Veterans (Inconvenient Stories & From All Sides); and more recently, Pigeon Hill: Then & Now, which pairs portraits I made of people residing in Bloomington’s housing projects between 1987 and 1991 with portraits of the same folks made between 2011 and 2016. In all three series I interview the individuals and include their own words with the portraits. This strategy allows audiences to directly connect faces with stories.

Homelessness is a worldwide problem. Living in downtown Chicago, I am confronted with it every day as I go about my daily life. I see so many different faces, each with a unique and compelling story about how they wound up on the streets requesting money from strangers. Our society is moving in the direction of shredding the social safety net, which will make the lives of our most vulnerable fellow-citizens that much harder.

I know I can just wander around the streets and photograph, but given the sensitive nature of this subject, I’ve decided it’s best to work with non-profit organizations that deal with homelessness every day. To this end, I’ve been working with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which has helped me identify individuals to photograph and interview. This helps with the issue of informed consent, which is an essential component of all my work. I strive to establish a relationship of trust with the people I photograph and to portray them with dignity. I’ve learned from CCH and other organizations that homelessness takes many more forms than just living on the streets and that many other factors besides mental illness and drug/alcohol addiction are causes for this problem.

People live doubled-up with friends or family (it is estimated that ~18,000 kids in Chicago Public Schools are homeless); in short or long-term shelters; in hospitals or SROs (Single Room Occupancy hotels). There are homeless veterans; individuals and families who were evicted when their residences were foreclosed on; people who had sudden and serious medical expenses that insurance didn’t cover, wiping out their life savings. Job loss, divorce, death of a spouse, domestic violence, lack of affordable housing all drive homelessness. There are working poor who live in tents or their vehicles because housing near their workplace is unaffordable. It is essential that I cover as wide a range of individuals as possible in order to tell a more accurate story.

Along these lines, I’ve begun expanding my work to include homelessness in Los Angeles as representative of some of the unique issues facing homeless on the west coast. I’ve been working with Safe Place for Youth and Venice Community Housing to help me identify individuals. I’ve also begun to explore the issue of rural homelessness, which is, yet again, somewhat different from what we see in large urban areas.

My hope is that my photo/text images can contribute to the public conversation about the causes and possible solutions to some of the difficult issues surrounding homelessness and to gain more understanding of this large but rather vulnerable community.

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