Tag Archives: documentary photography

“An All Too Familiar Reflection” on Socialdocumentary.net

My thesis project for my M.F.A. at the Academy of Art University consisted of twenty photographs which were edited down from over three years of work. I spent those three years out on the streets of several California cities shooting portraits of homeless individuals. In addition to my still portraits, I have multiple hours of raw video and audio interviews that I plan to one day weave together for a documentary multimedia piece.

This project has been very near and dear to my heart for a plethora of reasons and will continue to be a part of my life’s work for the remainder of my photography career. The strength and dignity I found in each of the individuals I met on the streets, served to remind me that we are not so different from one another. We are each human, with our own set of issues and frailties. It is through interaction with others that we become defined by way of a quiet recognition of our souls. When we look deep into the eyes of another, we cannot help but see ourselves staring back.

My series titled “An All Too Familiar Reflection: Portraits of the Homeless” is currently being featured on Socialdocumentary.net. You can view it by clicking on the screenshot below:

Freight Trains and Hobo Dreams

There is just something about trains. The deep resonant sound of the whistle triggers a primordial instinct deep inside my soul and I am, in an instant, sent riding along the rails within my mind. I imagine the high-pitched sound of the steel wheels as they spark and race along the tracks, the abstract blur of the landscape as it whizzes past and the wind that kisses my face as I stare out from an open boxcar that heads towards destinations unknown.


Malcolm, who calls himself a modern-day Hobo, rests with his dogs before hopping the next freight train on his journey across the United States. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

I have had the great pleasure in my life to know many who call themselves modern-day “Hobos.” Some turned to the rails out of necessity with no money and no way to get to where they needed to go. Some hopped trains to travel as far away as possible from the ugly pieces of their past. While others simply followed the stirrings of their hearts in order to fulfill their desire for excitement and adventure.

Split Trains

Trains from the past sleep on the rails at the California State Railroad Museum, Old Sacramento, CA. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Whenever I have the opportunity to do so, I catch a ride on a train. Though I am not in the open boxcar of a freight and am now seated in a comfortable chair in coach, I find myself giddy with that sense of adventure as we move along the rails towards our next stop. It’s in the rhythmic movement as the train cars snake along. It’s the clickety-clack sound of the tracks below. The deep, guttural hum of the engine as it pulls us along. The excitement I feel when the whistle gives its curt and persistent warning blow. I transform into that overall-clad hobo with all my earthly belongings on my back, not a care in the world, ready to abandon the comforts of this train and clamber aboard the next passing freight.

Emeryville Station

A freight train passes through the Emeryville Amtrak station, Emeryville, CA ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Several years back I had the opportunity to ride the White Pass & Yukon Railroad from Carcross in the Yukon down to Skagway, Alaska. Several of the enclosed cars had an open porch where you could stand outside and take photographs of the breathtaking surroundings. I chose to stand on the open porch for the whole two plus hour duration of the trip. The train hugged the mountain with a steep cliff off the opposite side and I found myself hanging over the rail and the edge of the cliff, mesmerized by the feeling that I was flying. For me it was the experience of a lifetime. The cold wind on my cheeks, the smell of the steam engine in the air, the mournful echo of the whistle as we rounded the curves; it all felt so hauntingly familiar to me.

White Pass & Yukon

White Pass & Yukon Railroad heads down the mountain from Carcross, Yukon towards Skagway, Alaska. ©Tracy J. Thomas, 2011. All rights reserved.

Whether it is something embedded in my DNA or a flashback from some karmic past life, it feels as if I have done this somewhere, sometime, a million times before. So if the day comes when you do not hear from me for a while, take a pause from your busy lives when you hear a train whistle blowing in the distance and imagine me with destiny fulfilled, a pack on my back and a wide smile on my face as I set out on a long journey to destinations unknown.

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.