Images of homelessness

WE, THE HOMELESS: PORTRAITS OF AMERICA'S DISPLACED PEOPLE by Victoria Irwin

photographs by Stephenie Hollyman

New York: Philosophical Library

256 pp. $40

IN the age of film and television, we still rely on the simple photographic image to condense and express national experience. A generation of schoolchildren knows the picture of the bright plumes of smoke trailing from the Challenger explosion.

Homelessness, however, is proving to be a daunting challenge to American documentary photography. By rendering pictures of urban panhandlers or figures huddled over steam vents, the photographer runs the risk of reinforcing stereotypes of vagrancy.

On the other hand, if the photographer emphasizes the individual humanity of homeless persons - perhaps by showing mothers tending to the needs of children - then the problem itself is muted. Ironically, heroic images of the homeless show people quite capable of helping themselves.

Moreover, as Victoria Irwin (New York bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor), points out in her taut, reflective text, homelessness is both visible and invisible. While the photographer may record its visible aspects, the multiple and diffuse causes of homelessness elude the camera - just as the solutions to homelessness have eluded national consensus.

Aware of these problems, Irwin and photographer Stephenie Hollyman situate their portrayal of homelessness in the universal need for shelter. Hollyman records shantytowns, derelict cars, and city pavements, refusing to make her subject more palatable by making it picturesque.

Similarly Irwin punctuates the complex catalog of causes - ranging from the staggering increase in female poverty to deindustrialization, and from substance abuse to mental illness - with gritty narratives rooted in the life and language of the homeless. A portion of the profits from the book will go to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

The book's strategy reaches its full pitch in the words of a man from Denver. Admitting that he is homeless, he continues to talk about the homeless as ``them.'' Many of the homeless disown their condition by using the third person.

In portraying homelessness in the '80s, Irwin and Hollyman depict the human fear of being rent from the social fabric - a fear that complicates homelessness as an individual predicament and as a national problem.

To confront homelessness is to confront the hard-boiled fact that the system does not always work, and that diligent people with talent and education can also fall through societal support systems.

Realizing the intricate nature of the problem, and the conflicting opinions to which it has given rise, Irwin and Hollyman wisely offer no panacea. Instead, they conclude with the discerning observation that the way we come to grips with homelessness will say much about American life and values in this era.

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