“Inequality is as dear to the American heart as liberty itself”
William Dean Howells (1837-1920), author and editor of the Atlantic Monthly
“Down and Out in the South” is a portrait series of homeless men and women who I encountered in South Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi in 2010 and 2011. The project started in September 2010, when 701 Center for Contemporary Art (CCA) in Columbia, S.C. (U.S.) invited me as an artist-in-residence. A board member of the CCA suggested homelessness as a possible subject matter for me to explore through photography during this residency. Initially, I was skeptical because society’s outcasts have been photographed very often, and I worried that I had little to contribute to existing images. However, after some consideration, I came up with a different approach: to photograph people who are homeless as I would photograph any other member of society. That implied not scouting out the most picturesque people I could find, with beards and hats, and leaving out the typical paraphernalia, such as shopping carts and sleeping bags. My approach also implied not photographing them in dramatizing black and white — imagery so often associated with portraits of homelessness. Instead of presenting them as The Other, and thus, by default, different from us, I wanted to photograph them in a studio setting, against a neutral backdrop, focusing on their individuality rather than on stereotypes. In essence, I want to show who they are rather than what they are labeled.
I set up a makeshift studio in offices and rooms in organizations that serve homeless people in Columbia, S.C., Atlanta, Ga., and the Mississippi Delta. I felt that the choice of three different habitats – a medium-sized city, the Southern metropolis and a few rural towns – in three different Southern states would result in a fair degree of representation of homelessness in the U.S. South. In total, I photographed approximately 100 homeless men and women. Of these, 42 portraits were selected for this book.
In Columbia, and to some extent in Atlanta, I worked with an outreach worker of a homeless organization in that city. We approached people on the streets, in parks, and in the library, for example. The outreach worker would introduce me and explain what I was doing. If the person consented to the brief interview and to having a photograph made, we would go immediately to my make-shift studio and start right away, without any clean up or other aesthetic arrangements.
In Atlanta, I approached most men and women while they were coming in off the streets for their free meal and a bed in one of the organizations that regularly feeds and shelters homeless people. After introductions to the large group, I would approach people who I wanted to photograph. I conducted the photography and interviews after the person’s meal, in the studio set up just a few yards from where they were eating or standing in line.
A few of the people I photographed in the Mississippi Delta were staying in a shelter for a longer period of time, but even then, they made no special preparations for the photoshoot. The people you see in this book look just like they did when I first met them.
A book containing 42 of the portraits called “Down and Out in the South” and an iBook with the same title, including the interviews and some fragments from a documentary movie will be published in the May 2013 by Ipso Facto (IF), Utrecht, The Netherlands, and will be presented at the Naarden Fotofestival. Distribution: via this website and via Idea Books (Amsterdam).
Atlanta-based writer James Swift will write an introduction. Over the years, his portfolio has expanded to include features on rural poverty, the American education system, autism spectrum disorder research and gay and lesbian rights, among scores of other cultural issues and events. He is the author of two books, 2009’s How I Survived Three Years at a Two-Year Community College: A Junior Memoir of Epic Proportions and 2010’s Mascara Contra Mascara: A Tale of Two Masks.
- In May – June 2013, the series will be exhibited at the Naarden Fotofestival in Naarden, The Netherlands.
- In October 2012, Down and Out in the South was shown in Atlanta, GA, in a series of six video projections during ACP (Atlanta Celebrates Photography) in a public installation at the Digital Arts Entertainment Lab at Georgia State.
- In that same period, a print show was held in the Big House Gallery, 211 Peter Street SW, Atlanta, GA 30313. For further info, see ACP (here)
- Earlier, a selection has been shown in the JJ-W Hotel (“Root” room), Tainan City, Taiwan, May 21 – June 21, 2012 (as part of group exhibition ‘Non-Sleep in Non-Home – Living in Art and Art Living in the JJ-W Hotel’).
For the people I photographed:
I sent to a hard copy of his or her portrait to every person I photographed for this project. Many of these photographs have been returned to me as undeliverable.
To anyone who has not received the promised copy: please contact me (here) and give me your name and address, and I will try it once again.
The voice recordings of some of the homeless people below are anonymous to protect their privacy.
Initially, I conducted these interviews alone; however, as time progressed, my assistant, fellow photographer and anthropologist Jennifer King, was involved in the process.
Financial support (including for the book) from:
701 Center for Contemporary Art, Columbia, SC; Mondriaan Foundation, Amsterdam, The Netherlands; The Netherlands Embassy, Washington, D.C.; Stichting Sem Presser Archief, Amsterdam, , The Netherlands.