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Project 50: Anatomy of a photo essay

In May 2008, I was given the assignment of illustrating a story on Project 50, a Los Angeles County-run program intended to house 50 of skid row’s most vulnerable homeless.

Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked on a number of in-depth photo essays that focused on people’s experience of being homeless. The first, shot in 1984, featured a family of nine who lived in their car while trying to find housing in San Jose.  Another, shot in 1988, focused on the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.  In 2000, I worked on a year-long project documenting Los Angeles’ skid row, and two years earlier I completed an 18-month photo essay that looked at the elderly living on the street.

This essay would be different since it would document what it feels like when a chronically homeless person is housed as well as the support they need to make it last. There were so many moving parts to the story that the only way to define a photo essay within it was to find subjects who would be willing to let me into their lives for two years. My entry point was a monthly party celebrating the birthdays of participants hosted by Project 50.  This event gave me the opportunity to meet many of the Project 50 staff members and participants.  Here, I tried to identify which of the participants had compelling stories, and who among them might allow me to document their lives in photographs.

I also met Project 50 outreach workers Doris Starling and Donald Holt, who at the time were still in the process of finding the homeless persons targeted by Project 50. I would meet with them at 6 a.m. several days a week as they scoured skid row. Their efforts involved a great deal of detective work, which I began documenting in photos as the first chapter of my photo essay.

The first homeless person to agree to be photographed was Thomas Gordon, who Starling and Holt found living on the sidewalk in front of the Fred Jordan Mission. Hewas surrounded by his belongings – bags filled with clothes, and a battered bike. Starling and Holt explained to Gordon that he had been identified by Project 50.  Gordon was skeptical, but after some time he conceded to the outreach workers.

When I first tried to make a few images, Gordon started shouting that he didn’t want his picture taken.  A negotiation often takes place when you try to persuade people that their stories are important and that they should allow themselves to be photographed. Trust is built over time, and my goal is to not betray it.

Gordon did eventually agree to become part of the story.   On his first day in the Project 50 program, he had to sign papers attesting that he voluntarily agreed to let the outreach workers  take him to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get an ID made, apply for Supplemental Security Income and have a medical exam that included a tuberculosis test.

After so many years of being homeless, Gordon was spent by the end of the day and decided he would prefer sleeping on the sidewalk. Chronically homeless people have had their own routines, often for years, and adjusting to a “normal” life doesn’t happen overnight.

It took weeks for the outreach workers to persuade Gordon to move into his new home. As a photojournalist I always roll with the story wherever it leads, because the unpredictable things that happen are always better than anything I could have imagined.

One of my favorite photographs is of Gordon weeks later smiling, shaking Starling’s hand at the front door of his new apartment.  The photograph illustrates the subtlety of gratitude.

Each of the seven other people in the photo essay illustrates the diversity of problems encountered when trying to place the homeless into housing.  Project 50 participant Bobby Livingston represented those who had a hard time adjusting to housing. Sheila Nichols, who is HIV-positive, found a place that enabled her to stave off her disease.  Wanda Hammond illustrated the fact that addiction will follow a person home.  And having once had money, as did former millionaire Paul Sigler, doesn’t mean you don’t need help getting back on your feet.

I spent time with each person, often before making a single frame, interviewing them about their daily activities and trying to flesh out the narrative of their piece. But the homeless have a lot of baggage. You can only do so much homework, and the rest comes down to spending as much time with each person as possible. When covering the homeless, I’ve found myself in some precarious and potentially dangerous situations.  I’ve spent time with angry, out-of-control homeless teens, had late nights at a homeless encampment under the 101 Freeway and photographed an 80-year-old homeless woman sharing an abandoned building with crack addicts.

What I’ve learned is to travel light, with just one camera body and two lenses.  I make it a practice to never take the camera out of my bag unless I’m going to use it. I always dress plainly so as not to stand out too much.  Yet and still, skid row residents will know if you’re a stranger to the area, so you never let your guard down. It pays to make as many friends as you can along the way, because they are the ones who will eventually watch your back in a tight situation.

One day when I was walking through skid row with Project 50 participant Nichols, several homeless men surrounded us after watching me take pictures of her walking down the sidewalk.  They said they wanted my camera because I hadn’t asked for their permission to take their picture. Just when things were really heating up, I received some help from a homeless man by the name of Cowboy whom I met covering a previous assignment. He explained to the men that I had worked on many stories in the skid row area.  He made them back off and directed Nichols and me to continue on our way.

Storytelling images often come from sheer diligence.  It took me weeks to get into Livingston’s room.  This was his private space and he wasn’t going to share it with anyone.

Keeping a clean room was one of the requirements of staying in the program, and word was that Livingston’s room was a disaster.  One morning I knocked on his door at around 6 a.m.  He answered the door completely naked and said, “Come on in, I’m still in bed.” On this day I was able to illustrate how Livingston had made his room look similar to his home on the street. I think he found comfort in the familiarity of the scene.

I first met Hammond in front of the Senator Hotel, where she had been placed.  She was thin as a rail and strung out on drugs.  A few days later she was picked up by the police and incarcerated for some time. She was released months later and was living at Los Angeles Transitional Housing  (LATH) in South Los Angeles. That’s when I met up with her again and started to illustrate her struggle to get her life back on track.  She had found religion and a stable place to live and was sober for months.When she graduated from the program at LATH, she made her way back to her room at the Senator Hotel.  She told me that she had a friend shoot her in the neck with heroin, and that her drug habit was on again. I danced around the subject of her substance abuse photographically by showing the needle filled with heroin, Hammond downing a huge bottle of beer in her room, and an image of her screaming at herself in the mirror.

Former millionaire Sigler represented a different kind of comeback, a story of an enterprising spirit still dealing with the demons that put him on the street. One of Sigler’s many new enterprises included his representation of ultimate fighter Mario Navarro.  My photograph of Sigler watching an ultimate fight bout showed he was back in the ring.

One of the biggest challenges of covering this story was being tethered to all these difficult lives for two years. The most basic challenge was documenting day in and day out the often mundane nature of a newly housed person’s life.

9 Comments

  1. November 19, 2010, 12:33 pm

    Genaro, This is truly inspiring. Dedication, patience and compassion are not just the qualities that rewarded you with powerful stories but also gifts from the time you spent with your subjects. Tahra Makinson-Sanders (ex Bee photo editor, though long after your time!)

    By: tmaksan
  2. November 19, 2010, 1:49 pm

    Good stuff. Some truly great images there. Some not so great. Some of the impact is lost because of the quality of the lenses used. That might sound like a strange superficial comment in the context of this incredibly important photography, but that would be a superficial assessment in itself. When you combine all things in service of your project, dedication, time, talent, vision, WITH superior technical capabilities, you augment the power of your message exponentially. The Getty's recent documentary exhibit was a supreme example of that. From Natchwey's breathtaking surgery collage, which I believe was shot with Canon L glass, to all the Leica legends, the lack of distortion (for the most part) the classic straight lines and sharpness, or conversely lack of sharpness, all those things served the message by helping to create unforgettable pictures. There are some of those here. And then there are some that just aren't.

    By: ajammjammerbirdier
  3. November 19, 2010, 2:23 pm

    Amazing. Thanks for sharing. (Ex Bee editor who had pleasure of being your team mate)

    By: Lisa
  4. November 19, 2010, 6:24 pm

    @ajammjammerbirdier,

    You seem to have believe the technical aspects of lens optics supersede the impact of visual storytelling.

    As a fellow photographer I favor the power of the story first and foremost over the choice of lenses or camera model used. The equipment is far less important than the photographer's choice on how to use the equipment to convey the story.

    L series lenses are indeed great lenses but given the size and additional weight for certain models the photographer may have decided such lenses were not warranted for the task at hand. The point of this photo essay was to tell the story of the individuals profiled not sell more "L" series lenses or Mark IV cameras.

    Any photojournalist who spent time on assignment in dangerous areas understands there may be compromises made in the interest of covering the story with the equipment which best serves the requirements for the shooting assignment.

    Keep up the great work Genaro.

    T Sal

    By: tony
  5. November 20, 2010, 6:54 pm

    Genaro, wonderful work. As always. So great to see your dedication, caring, honesty and professionalism.
    You could shoot with a pinhole camera and still be a star. – Adam Jahiel-

    By: aj@adamjahiel.com
  6. November 20, 2010, 7:22 pm

    It seems obvious that chronic homelessness and drug addiction go hand-in-hand. What I would like to know is how many of these men are veterans of the Vietnam conflict, just out of curiosity. Good work though.

    By: JWilliams
  7. December 5, 2010, 4:57 am

    I can't fitfully express how moving this was. I typically don't find myself in tears at 7 AM. Many kudos to Mr. Molina and the presentation team for their dedication and a very heartfelt "thank you!" to those involved in Project 50.

    By: Wes
  8. May 23, 2012, 5:41 pm

    Please, if possible, I would like to be contacted regarding Wanda Hammond. Inside her is the ghost of a child I once knew, once sang with during summer school in the 70's at Righetti High. Listening, I heard her voice once again, her eyes with little change. Please, let me know how she's doing now.

    By: jcfesler@gmail.com
  9. December 5, 2012, 9:14 am

    I love your writing and you have inspired me to try on whole other kind of photo project. Fantastic stuff here!

    By: pictimilitude

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