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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Flower-Seller

by Russ Butner

A few days ago, while ambulating through Couch Park, this homeless gentleman asked if I'd like to buy his flowers for a dollar. I politely declined, but asked if he'd be willing to pose with his flowers for the one dollar fee. He happily agreed, and I made this quick snap of him. He was quite pleasant, and was quite happy to receive his "posing" fee.


Featured Comment by Del Bomberger: I was going to avoid commenting on the photographing of the "homeless" issue, but, as it continues, it seems I'm going to be drawn in.

As an individual who is the Executive Director of a Homeless Shelter and has performed this job in four separate parts of the U.S. since 1994, I feel it is important to say that there is no way for the average person to know if the person they are photographing is homeless or not.

Your assumptions may well be wrong. They may be mentally ill, they may be addicts, they may simply be lonely and on Social Security and yes, some will actually be homeless, but you can't tell by looking.

I met a woman in a Walgreens in New Orleans last week who is working full-time and graduating from Tulane on the way to Law School. She lives in a homeless shelter, but you wouldn't know by looking at her.

Photographing the homeless is at best like shooting fish in a barrel—it takes little if any extra talent, and brings for the most part little or no new information to the discussion. Many of those living on the street and panhandling are not homeless, just entrepreneurs making a living, working their own hours, without any supervision and not paying any taxes on what in some areas can be considerable income.

View some of them as not much different than someone having a hot dog cart or corner newspaper franchise without the inventory. Of course there are those who panhandle just for the money to keep drunk or high, but they are a minority of the homeless population in my experience.


Blogger huwmorgan said...

It is interesting to me that labels carry such weight. The mention of the words "homeless person" invokes such an emotional reaction, not just from caregivers, but from anyone who has a compassionate nature.

I'm not sure, however, that the practice of photographing street dwellers is all about homeless people per se. Photography is all about capturing interesting images. Landscape photographers tend to congregate around interesting landscapes, like the grand canyon or the desert. Portrait photographers tend to focus on the rich and famous.

It is understandable that street photographers will also find subjects that are not the norm. I'm not sure people would find much interest in images of ordinary people, but throw in some eccentricity and the level of interest goes up. This is partially because of our human fascination with differences. We go to great lengths to travel to exotic locations to see people in different dress with different cultures.

We have exotic people in our midst. It is considered impolite to look at them on the street, yet with photographic images, we can stare at these people to our hearts content, drinking in their differences, mulling over why they choose to be the way they are.

It is not about classifying the eccentric into the homeless, the mentally ill or the flamboyant among us. It is just a human fascination with people who are different than the norm. Photographers are filling the need we all have to reflect on these people and why they are the way they are.

Is it a bad thing to photograph people who are different in some way? I would suggest that the photograph is usually indifferent to the subject. It is the viewer that brings the subjective interpretation. If the viewer is compassionate, then the outcome can actually be beneficial. If the viewer mocks the subject matter, then the outcome is sad. The photograph has nothing to do with the outcome.

Let's not condemn the photographer of interesting people, let's focus on the interpretation and on understanding the subject matter.

11:53 AM  
Blogger Hank said...

I remember when I lived in Soho (NYC) there was a panhandler who was a fixture in the neignborhood. If I remember right he was commonly known as 'Bill the Bum'. Contrary to what most passersby thought he certainly wasn't homeless. His daily take (which was more then many who where making donations) allowed him to buy a home in NJ. He even lent money to some of the local artists. For him, panhandling was just a way to make a living.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Richard Sintchak said...

"It is understandable that street photographers will also find subjects that are not the norm."

Sorry, IMO, the whole premise of this entire post falls flat as I feel that photographing homeless is altogether too much the norm. Way too much. It is, as another person wrote, like shooting fish in a barrel. Photos of homeless is way too easy as too many of them as so zoned out to even notice you. It's a whimpy way of shooting people. Even worse if the "drive by, from the hip" shots of homelessness. It's not only easy it's cowardly. No, it's not a statement as it's not unique or different most of the time. Engaging your subject, taking portraits of homeless people, in order to tell an individual's story or to make a point or tell a story (one more than just "Look at all the homelessness") is what makes homelessness as a subject more than just the "norm".

2:45 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

My Dad and I were wandering NYC many years ago and were walking toward a subway entrance when we saw a nicely-dressed young man patting his wallet-pocket and making gestures of distress. As we approached him, he was counting change in his hand, and he looked up and said, "Excuse me, can you spare eight cents so I can make subway fare? I left my wallet at home." My father said "sure!" and immediately gave him the eight cents.

An hour later we happened to be walking down the same street and saw the same guy in front of the same subway stop hitting somebody else up for subway fare. When he first saw us again he was very defensive, saying "I really did leave my wallet at home!" and things like that, but Dad told him he just wanted to ask him some questions and wasn't going to judge him.

It turned out he panhandled for change eight hours a day, with a regular lunch break, just as if it were a job. He said his average was around 11 or 12 dollars an hour, not a bad hourly wage in 1973--especially when you factored in that he didn't pay any taxes. He told us he hoped he wouldn't be doing it forever, because the "job" "doesn't utilize any of my talents." But he had been doing it for something like 10 months, if my memory is accurate.

He also said that he appraised each person individually in deciding how much to ask for. The eight cents he asked my father for was the smallest amount he would hit anybody up for, but he said my Dad looked like "a hard-ass." He had that part right, although I think my father would actually have given him more, because he had bought into the scenario.


4:09 PM  
Blogger Paul said...

The whole thing of shooting street people is quite a loaded subject. There are a lot of value judgements made, and there is a certain amount of taking advantage of a situation for your own entertainment.

I suppose I should clarify my position. I worked for many years as a community mental health nurse and quite a large proportion of my client base either lived literally on the street or in shelters for homeless people. The idea of photographing these people is akin to the Victorian era idea of a Sunday outing to the "Lunatic asylum". Finding entertainment in other people's misery is pretty abhorrent in my opinion.

If you do happen to enjoy this activity and do not have an editorial outlet for your work could I please suggest that every year you think about making a small donation to one of the many charities that help alieviate these problems. The Salvos (Salvation Army) are a good example as are the Wesley Mission. Pick the one you feel happy with in your area. Its nice to put something back.

9:47 PM  
Blogger erlik said...

"Excuse me, can you spare eight cents so I can make subway fare? I left my wallet at home."

Hah! That's probably one of the oldest in the book. I've had people approaching me for ticket fare numerous times. The most inventive was a guy who said he just got out of prison and needed the money for a bus ticket. Maybe he was telling the truth...

2:23 AM  
Blogger doonster said...

I thiught the idea was quite good - a more imaginative way to give a donation without either party feeling awkward.

In response to huwmorgan and richard sintchak - I actually like to phto ordinary people on the street and prefer the "from the hip, drive by" method. This gives all kinds of interesting photos of people doing interesting things

6:26 AM  
Blogger adamei said...

This is, indeed, a loaded subject and I think it matters a lot how one approaches it. If one really is simply taking snaps for entertainment value that would indeed be abhorrent. If one is documenting the unjust plight of the needy in the hopes of bringing it more pointedly to society's attention, whether or not one has yeat achieved an editorial commission, it is not necessarily abhorrent. If one profits from the situation, i.e. is paid for those photographs, does it make it more or less ethical? There are all sorts of questions to ask. Should one ask permission? The law says it's not necessary (in public spaces) but one's personal ethical code may say it is.

For myself, I live in Manhattan near Broadway and I always carry a camera, so perforce, I do lots of street photography. For years I've been collecting pictures of people living and working on Broadway. I ususally ask permission and if I'm refused I don't take the shot. But somethime I grab the shot from across the street or when the person is sleeping. I hope I'm not doing anything abhorrent, but perhaps I deceive myself. Certainly the world would be poorer if it lacked many photographs that have been taken of the destitute - that's not the same as saying that photographing the destitute is always art or noble or ethical.

Mike I don't think you allow posting links, so I'm not sure what will happen to this, but for those who are interested, my Broadway pictures are at:

7:58 AM  
Blogger Charlie Didrickson said...

That is a nifty shot Russ. I like the timeless feel it has. Except for a few cars it could be 1963

Looks like quite a character.

1:13 PM  
Blogger P-04referent said...

I like your style, Mr Butner. And that's without even looking at the photo you took. The streets need more people with your attitude. What you did was neither charity nor exploitation. You simply treated that man like a human being.
Oh, and the photo is very nice too. I'm no art critic, so I'll just say "it has soul". :-)

Del Bomberger and Mike Johnston make valid points. And yet, I feel this has little to nothing to do with why you chose to take that photo. You didn't seem to be doing it for some NGO's campaign.
huwmorgan said : "Photography is all about capturing interesting images."
This is how this picture feels to me. Nothing to do with standard media material.
"Photographers are filling the need we all have to reflect on these people and why they are the way they are."
Also, a photograph allows one to reflect on a subject with tranquil neutrality. You can ask yourself "what does the sight of this image make me think of?", ponder the subject to your leisure, without the inconvenience for that man to be stared at by a stranger. The camera "captures the instant". It, along with the photographer, helps us to reflect on what might otherwise have been just that : a fleeting instant, destined to vanish in the mists of the Past.

I know quite well about the existence of "professional" panhandlers. I also know they aren't the only kind. So, for each individual case encountered, I also do some appraisng of my own. I try to follow both my heart and my brains. The idea is simple : I'm no Rockefeller, so if I give to someone who doesn't need it, it goes out of what I could otherwise have given to a real needy person. And both types are abundant where I live (Lebanon).

The tough part is when I'm confronted to children which I know perfectly well are being "put to work". There are no definite answers. Shades of grey, Mr photographer. I'm sure you're familiar with the concept. :-/


5:51 PM  
Blogger P-04referent said...

Adamei said...
"But sometime I grab the shot from across the street or when the person is sleeping. I hope I'm not doing anything abhorrent, but perhaps I deceive myself."

It all depends on your intentions, really. By definition, you only deceive yourself if you have a voyeuristic attitude and state of mind.

For example, I heard that in the West, one may get into trouble simply by taking a snapshot of a child in a public place, as if this was some sort of pedophilia material. Textbook example of fighting one excess with another just as bad!

Heck, for some fetishists, a shoe catalog is intensely erotic. Should these be rated "for adults only" because of that? Anything can be considered evil, wrong or perverse, "abhorrent" as you say, if one's eye and heart is at it. Just think of women forced to cover every last bit of their bodies in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. The sight of their mere faces is labeled "obscene" there. Innocence, abomination... it's all in the eye of the onlooker.

This recent paranoid atmosphere in the West has me very worried. People voted for Hitler because they were afraid. Afraid of "the Jewish Peril" myth, afraid of the scarecrow of a scapegoat. We all know what ensued. :-(
Fear itself is what we should most fear. Summum jus, summa injusta.


6:15 PM  
Blogger Mike Johnston said...

Russ Butner has been unable to post a comment due to technical problems. He asked me to forward the following:

"I rarely take snaps of the homeless, because it usually serves no purpose. However, sometimes I get the opportunity to interact with them, and learn a bit about them. In this case, he wanted to sell his flowers, and more importantly, I felt that he wanted to talk. So in the limited time that I had, I gave him my full attention. He's a nice guy, that I cross paths with on occasion. In making the image, I had no delusion that I was making a worthwhile "documentary" image. He enjoys the attention and conversation. I made the snap on a whim, and will give him a print of it, as he said that he would like.


10:31 PM  

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