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"I was struck by something significant; it's hard to put a finger on," Lydia says. "I started talking with the guys and sometimes I would say, 'Would you mind if I wrote this down?' They felt affirmed by that. They were saying something that should be heard. I started writing things down on little snippets of paper. I had a small point-and-shoot camera that I used intentionally for all the photographs. I wanted to retain the spontaneity of the moment. I would pull out a small camera and, 'Do you mind if I take your picture?' The formal stories were written only after getting to know the individual over time, and then I asked, 'Do you mind if I record your story?' and then I edited it down. It was all about getting myself out of the way and getting the individual to come through."
This is the part of the transitional process where men feel validated. It's too easy to fall into deep, dark cracks of society when living without a home. Glenn says that before he got to 2100, he experienced life on the streets for a very short time. There was an emptiness to it, he says.
"You become invisible. Sometimes you want to be invisible, because you don't want people to see you," Glenn says. "But as I walk by people, you may walk by them and see them or not see them — like you don't want to see them. I consciously made an effort to look them in the face and make them understand they're not invisible. At that point, I was invisible and it was very uncomfortable and lonely. It's hard to deal with. It's a shame that you see people just walk by them and you even hear comments they they're just lazy or they're just drug addicts or they're worthless. It's a tough thing to go through. I cannot imagine doing that day to day everyday. These people don't aspire to be homeless or invisible or mentally ill. You don't grow up and say I want to be a guy on the street drinking beer and sleeping on the street at night."
But those very people who wind up in that position don't often have the opportunity to lift themselves up — not until they come to a place like 2100, that is — nor tell their story. That's where the real crux of all these photographs comes in. And they're everywhere — the photos, that is. They're not just on the walls of the shelter or in a traveling art exhibit or on the memory cards inside Lydia's camera. They're now in the hallways and in the cafeteria and on the sidewalk out front and on the bus rolling eastward out of Cleveland and — well, it'd be impossible to tell if you weren't looking with the right eyes.
The homeless don't typically look very homeless. But they've got a whole life of stories to tell.***
Lydia isn't the first person to come along and shoot photos of a city's homeless population. Her project focuses solely on men who've passed through 2100's halls and services. But photographers and advocates have arranged work like this all over the world. Photography — art, really — has always been seen as a method of raising awareness for the underserved in society. Lydia is part of the loud, though oft-unheard voice of the voiceless.
In London, former accountant Lee Jeffries embarked on a journey to photograph the humanity of the dispossessed. He's been all over the world now, seeking a sort of feeling that comes only when the light of life is just so nearly extinguished. He'd find flickers all over Cleveland, for sure.
Portraits of Homelessness is currently on display at Messiah Lutheran Church, 5200 Mayfield Rd. in Lyndhurst. Lydia will join several men from 2100 at a special forum on homelessness at the church on June 15. These forums are important components of the work Lydia has been doing. "Often, we have a forum where five guys who have been photographed come and talk," she says. "You suddenly get the inside track of what is in a person's mind who stays at the shelter."
(A full exhibit schedule is available at portraitsofhomelessness.com.)
Just a few weeks ago, Lydia was at Messiah Lutheran, setting up dozens of framed photographs just as she's done at countless other showings over the past several years. Each time, she says, she connects with these men on a different and deeper level. Their photos line the walls of 2100, but there's something more determined about the time she spends arranging her exhibit. She says she looks into their eyes and sees truth.
"I think for some of these people, they were honored by being able to tell their story in an honest way — and instead of having it censored, to see strength in it," she says. She could talk for hours about these guys, these portraits of humanity. So often though, words fail the real meaning behind her work.
She looks around the cafeteria at 2100, at all the photographs that hang with their stories on the walls and all the men lining up for the day's lunchtime routine, and falls silent.