Traverse City Record-Eagle

Archive: Friday

November 30, 2012

Photographer puts face on homelessness

TRAVERSE CITY — She says she has been called every name in the book: freak, slut, addict and crazy. Her Mom told her, "You make me want to die!"

So begins the compelling introduction to Marlo, a homeless woman pictured in "The Other Traverse City, Part 2." The show by photographer Alan Newton opens Monday, Dec. 3, at the City Opera House, and features nearly two dozen homeless men and women in photos and stories. Together, they offer a rare personal glimpse into the lives of some of the homeless in the Traverse City area.

Newton, of Newton Photography, said he got the idea for the show in the fall of 2011 after seeing Internet photos of some of London's homeless.

"They were really intense," said the retired transplant from Los Angeles and Boston, who recently completed a project for Child and Family Services of Northwestern Michigan that involved photographing adopted children and their new families.

He approached Goodwill Industries of Northern Michigan with the notion of putting a similar face on homelessness in Traverse City, and got permission, with two codicils: that he would only interview and photograph people who were introduced to him or who approached him, and that all subjects would know the interviews and photos would be part of an exhibition.

"He wanted to take his time, meet the people and give them the chance to tell their stories, and take pictures in a dignified way, without alterations," said Ryan Hannon, street outreach coordinator for Goodwill Industries, which operates the homeless shelter Goodwill Inn and works with Safe Harbor, a rotating church shelter. "He wanted to show the human side of homelessness."

Newton said he took the photos over a period of five or six months, from late fall to early spring, as he built relationships with homeless people everywhere from Safe Harbor shelter locations to Community Outreach breakfasts at Central United Methodist Church. Since then several of those pictured have found homes and jobs. One has died.

Along the way, Newton said, he learned much about homelessness.

"Circumstance, a bad break or bad choices can put people in homelessness. And it's important to give people a chance to get out," he said. "It's hard to get a job if you don't know where your next meal is coming from or you don't know where you're going to sleep that night."

Newton said he chose an 8-by-10-inch head shot format to emphasize his subjects rather than their circumstances. The color photos were taken with a Canon Digital SLR camera and were not manipulated to create a particular response from viewers, as photos of the homeless often are, he said.

"They make the photos gritty. They take photos of the homeless asleep on the sidewalk, pushing a shopping cart," he said. "In this show it's just, 'Wow, they're people.' They look just like anyone else, and that's what they are.

"I tell people to come to my show to meet some of the people experiencing homelessness in the Traverse City area through their stories and photos rather than as a label and concept. The photos need to be seen along with their stories, otherwise they become what I am working to erase: 'the homeless,' instead of 'Suzanne' or 'Ken' or 'Vincenzo.'"

Four of the 23 who posed, including Marlo, a college student who left home because of beatings and demeaning behavior towards her, and who struggles with alcohol, anger and occasional attempts to hurt herself, covered their faces with their hands in order to remain anonymous. Newton said many viewers consider those portraits to be among the show's most powerful.

"The covered face says more about the struggle, shame and embarrassment that some of them experience than a regular photo ever could," said the photographer, who shoots for the City Opera House, the Traverse City Film Festival and Traverse City West Senior High sports, among other organizations.

The photos were shown in September at the 7th Annual Summit on Ending Homelessness, part of a state campaign. Newton said he hopes to give private showings for classes and other groups, followed by Q&A sessions with himself and Hannon.

The photos are not for sale and won't appear on his website, he said.

Monday's opening reception will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. Many of those who work with the area's homeless community will be there, Newton said, including representatives of Goodwill Industries, Safe Harbor, the Father Fred Foundation, Child and Family Services, food pantries and community meals programs. He also invited liaisons with Traverse City Area Public Schools' Students in Transition Empowerment Program, or STEP.

The show, a continuation of a series Newton debuted in July at The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, runs through December. Admission is free.

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