When I passed this homeless man on Roxboro Street Sunday afternoon, I felt unsure of what to do. First, I tried to wake him to see if he was OK. Although he didn’t respond, he was breathing and sleeping deeply. And then I took his picture.
I feel conflicted about how to deal with the problem of homelessness. I have compassion for people living on the street; it could happen to any of us. They are no less human for not having a roof over their heads, or for having a drug or alcohol addiction that prevents them from finding stability. And personally, I feel the panhandling ordinance has been too harsh; I’ve given money, and in one instance, when I had no cash, a plate of brownies, to the homeless soliciting on the medians. If people use my money to buy bottles of beer or cigarettes or drugs, that’s on them. On the other hand, I got into a screaming match earlier this fall with two young, and apparently able-bodied, young men, scammers, in my estimation, who followed me downtown and aggressively asked me for money.
I asked myself some ethical questions before I took this man’s photograph. I felt I should do the humane thing and check on him before doing anything else. Then I questioned my motivation: Was I just being voyeuristic or disrespectful? Since his face is largely in shadow, he is not recognizable.
I wrestled with the issue for several minutes, secretly hoping he would awaken so as a courtesy, I could ask permission to take his photo. (Legally, if you are in public, you have no presumption of privacy, and you can be photographed without your consent.)
Ultimately I decided that I should take his picture.
1) From a social justice standpoint, People need to be reminded that the homeless live among us; they are among society’s the most vulnerable people. The way this man was sitting, his arms tucked inside his sweatshirt, his knees together and legs splayed—and the fact that he was sleeping—shows that vulnerability.
2) From an artistic standpoint, I found him beautiful. I did not want to exoticize or romanticize him, just to show him honestly. Most people are beautiful when they’re sleeping, and he is no different.
Then I confronted another issue: Should I leave him any money? It’s journalistically unethical to pay someone to take his or her photo—and even in documentary photography, which plays by slightly different rules (you can pose and direct people for street photos, even outside the bounds of portraiture), it’s frowned upon.
I left a dollar. Not because I took his photo, but because had he been able to ask me, I would have given it to him.