Tag Archives: homeless

The Strangers I’ve Known

I met “Gypsy” at a rest stop at the top of a mountain pass. He was wearing a woman’s dress and had a scarf wrapped around his head. He sat barefoot on a bench with a bottle of Windex and a rag politely asking people who passed by if he could clean their car windows for a small donation. “Gypsy” said he has lived in his car for several years because he prefers to travel and be free from the expectations of a society he “doesn’t fit into.” ©Tracy J Thomas, 2015. All rights reserved.

I think often about the strangers I have met. They come to me in different places on their journey; the young, the old, the worn, and the tired. They each have a story to tell, written in the pain along the edges of their faces and the in shadows that have settled in their eyes.

Nikolei, Jamie & Spike in Old Sacramento, CA, 2010. This photo is from the first time I met Nikolei and Jamie. Nikolei, 20, was laid off from his job at FedEx and began living on the streets after he could not find another job and could no longer pay rent. He had been homeless for 6 months. Jamie, 16, was kicked out of her parent’s house 2 months prior and felt safe hanging out with Nikolei and Spike. She sold her skateboard the week before so they would have some money for food. The two had plans to make their way up to Washington where Nikolei hoped to find work. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

There is something that draws me to them. Some distant feeling of recognition. I understand their pain, their sorrows, their fears. A piece of me wants to ignore them and move on with my day in search of beauty. While a part of me feels drawn to stop and talk to them, it is at the risk of revisiting those dark memories hidden away so conveniently inside my mind.

They are a reflection of all that can go wrong with this life, with the mind, the heart, the body, and soul. Lost in the shuffle of humanity and caught in a downward cycle of demise, they exist on the other side of the thin veil between a successful life and some sordid alternate reality. The mirror they hold up forces us to look into ourselves and question our 

own choices and circumstance, and causes us to wonder why this world can be so incredibly cruel. So we divert our eyes, walk on by, and pretend they don’t exist. 

  I met Charles on K Street, Sacramento, CA, 2011. Charles grew up without either of his parents. Both of them were incarcerated from the time he was a baby so he was raised by an aunt and uncle who abused and neglected him. In his early twenties he got married, had two children and began using drugs and alcohol heavily. He divorced and ended up homeless on the streets. Charles now suffers from chronic liver disease including Hep C and cirrhosis of the liver. His abdomen was swollen and painful and he had recently filled out the paperwork to receive medical assistance. He chooses to sleep in the woods. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

Are they there because of the choices they make? Or have their lives been dismantled by ugly circumstances beyond their control, by the terrifying things we cannot see? Who are we to judge them? Really. We are all human beings. That is our common ground from the beginning. 

I am always surprised when I take the risk and reach out to talk with those strangers who cross my path. Some of their stories are harrowing, some extremely sad. While others admit to choices that have lead them to where they sit, others are like free spirits who choose to remain there, like gypsies, unbound by societal demands. Some are clearly in need of help for both physical and mental ailments but lack the resources and the ability to seek it on their own. 

 I met Christina and Ears on Market Street, San Francisco, CA, 2010. Christina had been homeless off and on for five years. She suffered from bipolar disorder and at one point suffered from Neutropenia related to the psychotropic medication they gave her in the hospital. She turned to self medicating with heroin when she ended up on the streets. Christina was passionate about rats and bred and raised them to sell the babies to pet stores. She was receiving Methadone treatment for her addiction to heroin at the time I met her. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

Some have been well educated with degrees and plenty of job experience. I have met teachers, artists, musicians, and even a former attorney. Each one had a different story surrounding the tipping point that lead them out onto the streets. Many have spent their lives running from the shadows of an ugly childhood, and like the many Veterans I meet, are struggling with the horrors of PTSD.

 I met Malcolm on L Street in Sacramento, CA, in 2010. Malcolm had been homeless for four years. He had to leave home when he was 18 and when he couldn’t find a job to pay rent, he decided to hop freight trains and see the country. He had visited 48 states and was on his way down to Florida with his two dogs and his girlfriend. ©Tracy J Thomas. All rights reserved.

“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:

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.