Friday, March 02, 2007

Looking Closely

Man, I'm such a sop.

Recently, I've started to have the urge to reach across the ether of the Internet to people whose words or images have touched me. The internet is no longer that vast limitless place where all information is suspect and not to be trusted. Because anyone can stick up a webpage and write whatever they want, dontcha know. It may not even be based on real science.

But blogging has revealed the people behind these words and images, and as Jen points out today, those people have formed some kind of community for me.

So when I see photographers like that kid from Lindsay, Joey Lawrence, I want to say to him... well I don't know what exactly I want to say to him. But something along the lines of, "Your photos are amazing. How can you only be 17 with such an experienced and empathetic eye?" I would also have some technical questions about his equipment, whether he uses one zoom lens out in the field, or whether he switches on the go. What he does about model releases and consent and stuff like that...

There is another artist on flickr, Tom Stone, based in San Francisco I think, who makes portraits of street people he encounters, and writes about them. He obviously develops a real rapport with his subjects. Sometimes his text is short and gruff, like the person in the picture, I imagine, and sometimes it's a full, nearly-life story. It's all powerful. Some of it is dark, some hopeful.

Today he reposted an old portrait, indicating that he had just found out that the good-looking young man within its frames had killed himself six months ago.

There are many many comments below the text, which I scrolled through and mostly didn't read, until the last one, which linked to the boy's obituary, which was full of his life and accomplishments -- poems published, graduating high school with honors, his love of the open road -- and recognition of all the people he loved and who loved him. It was a beautiful and heartfelt piece, written by his mother.

And I was struck by the incongruity between what I thought of the boy in the image on flickr, and what this story of his life and love and family was telling me. Not that I had expectations exactly, but... when I saw the portrait, and read that he'd killed himself, I thought, another street kid gave up hope of a better life. But reading his obituary, I can't be so sure. He's not just a street kid, he's someone's brother, someone's nephew, someone's friend... someone's son.

And it's this last bit that pushed the prickly tears over my lower lids and down my cheeks. The obituary ends with this:

You were my wish on every star. In the "always" that lie ahead and the "forever" that will be...I loved having you in my world. I will hold you in my heart more gently than any feeling. I will keep you on my mind more lovingly than any thought and I will feel blessed by your presence more than you will ever know...Mommy.
Such beautiful words for a mother to utter to her child...

The last comment I saw on flickr, by cobaltbluetony, the one that linked to the obit, says it all I think:

Some people didn't read the text; just commented on how good the shot was. Like so many people on the street, he is just a face to them.

I too might forget him a year from now. But as long as I can, I will keep Gabriel Joshua Wolrab's face in my mind, so I can have a bit more compassion than the average commuter, who breezes past these faces without realizing they're real people who live and die right there on the pavement.

There are a few panhandlers in G-town, and often I get annoyed by them. They're usually in the same places, and asking the same people for the same change, day after day, week after week (it's a small town). The other day I saw a man who let me photograph him a while back, and I smiled at him. I doubt he recognized me, but it struck me that in the act of taking his picture, he became human to me in a way that I haven't allowed other panhandlers in a long time. It is my goal to smile at the street people I encounter, to remember their humanity and their families.

Reading about Gabriel Wolrab makes me want to reach out and help these people. I wonder who can I donate to, where can I volunteer? But the thing is, seeing these portraits and reading about these people, I don't want to condescend to pity them. It's the same way I felt in South Africa in that hostel where 54 people share six rooms with 18 single beds between them. It's a lifestyle I can't imagine, but there is laughter and sunshine and family and irons... They certainly don't need my pity, just because they live differently from me, and neither do street people.

As Joey Lawrence points out in his artist's statement:

After talking to many homeless individuals I have found extreme content and satisfaction within some of them. In others I have found a story of hardship. Are you willing to look close enough?
* * *

Have just discovered Tom Stone's gallery, which contains an arresting artist's statement. Go check it out, but in the meantime:

We try to belong and we seek to exclude. We form bonds by geography, religion, economy and otherwise. But it is all precarious. We come together and we drive apart.

And we climb our ladder. We step away from those who don’t belong and help those who do. We are connected rung by rung – though less and less – as we push and pull. But some do not climb; and below, the earth is littered with them. They fit too poorly. They stand apart. They stand without.

And what of them; these ones who don’t belong or who are excluded; who don’t fit or don’t try? Is there nothing they value? Is there nothing of them we value? I count it as a measure of our ignorance, the depth of poverty in the world. It’s a glaring marker to how far we have not come. Yet it has also driven our advance; on less fortunate backs and against less fortunate fate.
20-30% of the proceeds of any of his work sold online go towards providing basic supplies like warm clothes and hygiene products to street kids.


JCA said...

thanks for blogging this!

NotSoSage said...

I'm learning a new meaning for connection, lately. Until I began it, I didn't really understand the making of friends via the internet. I used it mainly as a way of communicating with friends that I'd already made. Now I'm broadening my understanding of how people can relate to each other.

In every neighbourhood that I've lived in I've made connections with a few street-involved people, but then either I or they move away. It's a life of transience, and as neighbourhoods get gentrified (as mine is currently doing), people move out when they feel they are no longer welcome. Because they don't have a house, they are not given the opportunity to claim a neighbourhood as their home.

This was a very wonderful post. Thanks for sharing all of this with us.

jen said...

see. this is exactly, exactly what i am talking about.

gingajoy said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, CG. I've been spending a great deal of time thinking about community, and blogs, and photos lately. And how, online, we manage to connect to one another, trust one another, and form material relationships in this supposedly immaterial world.

The commentary you give on Gabriel's photo and it's surrounding narratives is so insightful. Very thought provoking for me.

Suz said...

Thank you for sharing this. That mother's statement brought tears to my eyes as well as the photo of the homeless man asking for a penny or a smile. I might not know where to donate or how to help, but next time I pass someone with a cup out, I'll at least smile.

Oh, The Joys said...

I sometimes feel like we're all out here in unchartered territory together, defining the boundaries of new lands. It's hard to explain to people that aren't involved what's going on in this community - I hardly understand it myself. We're making it up as we go, but there is this power in it...

Mad Hatter said...

Lovely, Sin. Profoundly moving and lovely.

nakota672 said...

Thank you for what you wrote about my son Gabriel. Yes, there most definitely are incongruencies between what the picture represents and Gabe's true life, but that's what makes it so incredibly amazingly him. He had (has) the most complicated soul. I miss him him everyday.

Mad Hatter said...

Wow. Welcome to this place, to this community of mothers. May you find some peace here.

Sin, I had just popped in to say that I wanted to include this post with the Just Posts.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I don't know how long ago you wrote about the Tom Stone photo and article, but my name is Christie, and the boy in the photo was My brother Gabe, i see that my mom commented as well. I also think you for what you have written. Not only has my brother touched all of his family and friends life but since his death he has touched so many strangers' lifes, again thank you.