Portraits of the homeless

A photo class turned outreach program is a lesson in lens, light, ethics, and service.

For people struggling to scrape together enough money to afford a place to live, posing for family portraits can seem like a luxury. But at a homeless shelter in San Jose, Calif., people had the opportunity this fall to gather in front of the camera lens and flash their best smiles.

On the other side of the camera were students from a Santa Clara University photo class – who had been learning not only about lighting and shutter speeds but also about ethics and service and the power of images to tug on society's conscience.

"It was a moment, you know – it just brightened up our day," says Miguel Garcia, who posed with his wife, Christina, and their children, Rosa and Michael Ray. For the past month, the family has spent nights at the Community Homeless Alliance Ministry (CHAM) shelter in San Jose's First Christian Church. The Santa Clara students volunteered there and at other shelters, bonding with the children well before portrait day. "They had their heart in it; I could feel that," Mr. Garcia says.

Soon the students will deliver prints to the residents, who plan to send them off to relatives or tuck them away until they can hang the portraits on walls of their own. Starting in January, some portraits will be on display at the university's de Saisset Museum, which will also host a panel discussion about homelessness.

"It's a powerful tool for awareness-raising," says Diane Nilan, a longtime advocate for homeless children and author of "Crossing the Line: Taking Steps to End Homelessness." The camaraderie and mentoring that students and other volunteers offer to children at homeless shelters is "a gift that kids talk about years later," she says. "We all treasure being recognized. Kids in a homeless situation aren't any different, it's just that they don't get that recognition as often as they need it."

Courses that link academic work and community service are on the rise. Campus Compact (a coalition of more than 1,000 colleges and universities that embrace a civic mission) reports that 98 percent of member schools offer service-learning, up from 91 percent a few years ago. These campuses offer an average of 35 such courses each.

Photography instructor Renee Billingslea found her inspiration through the Sixth Street Photography Workshop in San Francisco, which teaches photography to homeless and low-income people and exhibits their work. She and the museum curator decided to bring Sixth Street's traveling exhibit to Santa Clara and complement it with a service-learning course.

The 14 students in her class studied the work of photographers such as Lewis Hine, who documented child labor in the early 1900s, and Dorothea Lange, who turned her lens on Depression-era families. "They're learning how the camera can be a very powerful tool," Ms. Billingslea says.

In the first few weeks of volunteering at the shelters, she asked the students not to bring cameras, but simply to provide services and to observe and listen. Students also turned in journal entries, allowing Billingslea to see their gradual shift from apprehension to empathy and understanding. For many in the class, this was their first exposure to homeless shelters.

In phone interviews with the Monitor, students and residents shared their experiences. Freshman Ben Thompson says his view of homelessness has changed. "I used to walk down the streets and if I came by a homeless person, I would keep my head straight and not acknowledge them.... I've learned not to do that – they are people, and sometimes they just want to talk."

At the CHAM shelter, students took the younger children out for pizza and helped them make picture frames out of popsicle sticks. By portrait day, the students were a familiar presence.

But Mr. Thompson realized that a few weeks of volunteering wasn't enough to win all the residents over to having their portraits taken. "We'd walk by [some families we knew] and ask if they were coming to the portrait day, and they'd just completely ignore us," he says. Though disappointed, he understood why people might hesitate to be on display under the label "homeless."

"Students have become part of our ministry," says Pastor Scott Wagers. He founded CHAM in 1997 and has been on a mission ever since to prompt community leaders in Silicon Valley to find solutions to the problem of "poverty amid plenty." His shelter serves just a fraction of the estimated 7,600 homeless people in Santa Clara County; it sits next door to a new city hall that cost San Jose more than $350 million.

"I've seen the homeless put off before [by people who] ... think that they understand homelessness," Pastor Wagers says. But the students "come in truly wanting to learn." Along with class discussions, each student developed his or her own 10-point ethics policy for photography.

With guidance from experienced photographers from Sixth Street, the students "really captured the images of the beautiful people who live in the church," Wagers says.

Phillip Romero, who posed with his wife, Michelle, and their four sons, says they appreciated the opportunity. "We don't have money to take pictures as a family." In fact, it had been so long since he'd had his photo taken that "it kinda had me shy for a minute," he says. But the children were excited, and even took pictures themselves.

The family had tried shelters in at least four towns before settling on CHAM. Now the kids are registered in school and Mr. Romero is in a program that combines work and education. When the prints arrive, "I'm going to send a lot of them home to my mom and my stepdad so they can put them away for me," he says.

Leyna Roget, a senior who's studying art and film, says she realized during this project how much she takes family photos for granted. She wants visitors to the exhibit to think about homelessness in a new way. "People see homelessness as a strange kind of thing. You hope [this brings out] the happiness in the family interaction, the normalcy of it all," she says. And then she hopes it prompts questions about society: "Why don't they have a home? Shouldn't they? What's wrong with that picture?"

The positive effects of service-learning courses ripple beyond the classroom. In San Jose, press coverage of the portrait day prompted the Creative Memories company to donate scrapbooks.

"I'm planning on continuing photography, and I'd like to do it to help with social issues if I can," Thompson says. He also wants to keep volunteering at CHAM. "It would be kind of a bummer to just stop because the quarter is over."

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