The homeless man with the piercing blue eyes has a story to tell.
His story may involve pain, addiction or mental health issues. It may include a time in his life when he was highly successful followed by a period in which he lost everything. But there is a chance he may never share the story.
That’s why the portrait of this man, whose name is Randy, almost did not happen. His homeless friend Harland begged him to take it on a dark night in an unknown location. With a pen light tucked under one arm and a digital camera in the other, Harland quickly snapped the photo. The result is an image that tells a story without saying a word.
These are the types of images veteran photographers Dan Kozminski and Dave Wooldridge could never have gotten on their own. But that was never their intent. Instead, they wanted to give homeless people an opportunity to shoot photos on their own of whatever moved them.
One photographer was moved by the image of a cooler inside a shopping cart. He explained: “If you are homeless and you have a cart and a cooler, you’re an elite homeless. [It’s like] you’re in Beachwood… you’re in Pepper Pike.”
If it weren’t for the project, which was sparked by Kozminski, the significance of a cooler inside a shopping cart may have gone unnoticed. It’s for that reason Kozminski was driven to do the project in Cleveland, after he read about similar projects in Paris and Athens.
The intent included four objectives:
Give a voice to the homeless
Help instill a deeper sense of dignity
Educate the public with a different point of view on homelessness
Change some attitudes
He put a simple ad on a photography website that stated: “I had an idea for a socially orientated photography project, and I’m looking for someone who might have an interest in joining me.” Wooldridge replied to the ad, and the duo agreed to put the project into action.
St. Herman was the first homeless shelters they approached, and the reception was very positive.
Paul Finley, the local director of St. Herman House in Cleveland, welcomed the project. He had been approached in the past by numerous photographers who asked to take pictures of the homeless, but this request was unique. It would be a way to allow homeless people in his Focus North America, Orthodox Christian House of Hospitality, to speak for themselves.
“I liked the concept of what Dave and Dan wanted to do,” Finley says. “No one has ever approached me with an idea like this. I feel that anything that raises awareness of what we are doing and of the people we serve is a good thing, particularly if it allows a person to see the homeless as something more than a category.”
“For most people, homeless is a category. You have the rich, you have the middle class, you have the homeless, so these become nameless faces with a category,” he continues. “The fact is, if you are down here for any length of time, they do have a face and they do have a name. They are individuals. You take the face of Randy — the difference between a monk on Mount Athos in Greece and this guy is almost non-existent. You go from the heights of spirituality to this guy who is terribly disturbed and has lived on the streets for a long time.”
Finely introduced Kozminski and Wooldridge to Carl, Ella, Harland, Jeffrey, Mike and Tracy, who were interested in participating. The plan was to give the photographers disposable cameras. It was nixed when Kozminski tested it and was left with low-quality images. Kozminski and Wooldridge then pitched in $1,000 to buy nine digital cameras.
“I asked Dan and Dave if they were prepared to lose the cameras,” Finley says. “But that was my lack of trust. We didn’t lose any of them, which says something about the self-esteem that it built within the people who were taking the pictures.”
Over 1,000 images were submitted. The images were narrowed to 40 and made into an exhibit that was first displayed at Cleveland’s Ingenuity Festival in September 2016. Earlier this year, from January to March, University Hospitals featured the collection. Kozminski and Wooldridge hope other organizations will do the same.
“If Dave and I would have taken the pictures ourselves, we would have never gotten some of these images,” Kozminski says. “First of all, we would never have known where to go. Secondly, some people like Randy would have never allowed us to take their photographs, but they were taken by people they knew so they allowed them to take the images.”
Finley knows the images and the stories behind each one well. He’s worked at St. Herman House for the past four years. Last year, with the help of local donations, the shelter served over 80,000 hot meals. At any one time, the main house hosts 28 men. Three doors down, there is a transitional house in which men with six months of sobriety may live if they pay a program fee and work with a case manager toward long-term permanent housing. St. Herman House also owns 75 acres of property in Trumbull County. The long-term goal is to develop a recovery ranch on the site.
“To use a photography analogy, St. Herman House is like a tripod,” Finley says. “It has three legs (the main house, the transitional house and the farm) that can stabilize something on a very unstable foundation. These people have great instability, but if somehow through those three legs we can help bring their lives into focus or put their possibilities into focus, then maybe the people won’t feel like they are at the end of a very long road. If we accomplish that, we have done a good thing.”