Seeing the Homeless


"Sweets" ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

Photo: “Sweets” in a woman’s shelter, Sacramento, CA.

There has been a long-held illusion that the documentary and photojournalism styles of photography are objective in nature.  Traditionally, the goal is to document a particular slice of life or occurrence just as it is, unmediated, allowing true conditions to speak for themselves, while keeping one’s own emotions and philosophies out of the equation.  Photography has a certain level of “realism” connected to it and is often confused with objective truth.  Yet in reality, all photographers use subjective choices whenever they create an image.  These subjective technical decisions may be second nature to a seasoned professional, however the choices that they make when it comes to light, angle, line, composition and texture divorce them from that mythical level of objectivity.  Their subjective decisions become the driving force behind the impact that their photos ultimately have on the viewer.

Tia, Joe & Snickums

"Tia, Joe & Snickums" ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

I personally believe it is close to impossible, unless one is a cold and unfeeling Sociopath by nature, to leave life experience, emotions and belief systems out of the equation when composing a photo.  Photography, as all art, is a subjective medium that lends itself to a cadre of interpretations from its viewers.  The original intent of me as photographer may be to document the scene as it happens before me, however, the moment I decide to click the shutter is based on a subjective decision that all is right within my viewfinder.

The focus of my M.F.A. studies at the Academy of Art University is Documentary photography.  The subject matter for my thesis project is the homeless.  When I first began my search for compelling subject matter and a sound concept that would pass the muster of the Midpoint Review Committee, I felt drawn to the homeless population in our area for the usual reasons.  The subjects would be visually interesting and the concept would be relevant in this time of economic struggle.

I, like most people, had my own set of preconceived notions about the homeless before I began my project.  I too fell prey to all the photos in the press that showed dirty drunks passed out in city doorways with their empty bottles of booze cast to the side.  But these images are one photographers subjective decision to shoot and present one side of the story.  Like a lot of people in our society I was guilty of forming my own set of  beliefs about these individuals on incomplete, biased information and buying into fear of the unknown.


"Harold" ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

There were two directions I could go with my project.  The first would be to photograph these people from a safe distance but this would only reinforce the prejudices that I wanted to break away from.  My second option would be to approach them with an open mind and attempt to get to know the people I was about to shoot.  After several contemplative conversations with self, I decided on the latter.  I felt driven to face my own fears and shake up my personal notions, while at the same time make an attempt to show the human side of these individuals to my viewers.

As I began to journey out into the city streets, I was at first admittedly timid and would only watch from a distance for a time.  I made a pact with self that I would never photograph a homeless person without a proper introduction, followed by conversation and then would ask their permission to take a photograph.  It was also important for me to know their names and where it was they came from.  When I finally gathered courage, the majority of the individuals I approached were extremely gracious and thankful that I actually took the time to sit and talk with them.  They were happy to tell me their stories and then allow me to take their photographs.


"Sara" ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2010.

The biggest surprise in all of this for me has been the stories they tell of their lives and their journey out onto the streets.  I have met formerly successful business women, an attorney, an individual with a doctorate degree, veterans of several wars, an artist and a photographer.  They have been African-American, Caucasian, Native American, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander.  I also met individuals who had struggled with alcohol and drug abuse for most of their lives and several who suffered from untreated mental illness.  I met women with nowhere to turn after fleeing abusive husbands and teenagers who lived under bridges after being kicked out of their parents homes.  The majority had dreams and desires for their lives just like the rest of us but faced hurdles that sidetracked them from their goals.  Most of them felt stuck and uncertain of their future.

My thesis project will continue to evolve over my remaining three semesters at the Academy.  My goal is to remain open during the process and to experience positive change and growth for the duration.  My hope is to have an impact on the way that others begin to view the homeless.

About tracyth76

I am a professional photographer, obsessed iPhoneographer, freelance writer and website designer located in Northern, California. View all posts by tracyth76

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