Headshots for the homeless? Photographer Joe Ramos connects art and social work

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Images of homelessness are not hard to come by. These scenes are often pathetic, clichéd. In the worst cases, the homeless are portrayed as inhuman heaps of blanket and facial disfigurement, people reduced to their time spent sleeping on the streets or begging for money. But in “Acknowledged,” photographer Joe Ramos’ exhibit at the Main Library that opens Sat/28, unhoused subjects are shown in a way that’s truly radical: as people just like us.

The tradition of using poor peoples' image as exploitative art can be traced back to Jacob Riis’s photos of New York City tenement housing in his 1890 photojournalism book How the Other Half Lives. The project launched a spate of tenement tourism among the upperclass in New York City -- a phenomenon which finds its equivalent today in the slum tours conducted in Mumbai, Rio, Nairobi, and other developing cities.

The stated intention of these enterprises is admirable: to raise awareness of a societal problem that needs to be addressed. But their results can be a dehumanization and objectification of the “other half,” the poor becoming art and entertainment rather than harbingers of a culture gone awry and, most importantly, fellow human beings. 

But that is why Ramos’s photography project is so exceptional. Instead of randomly snapping pictures of the homeless on the street, the photographer works for Project Homeless Connect, a non-profit that provides medical and social services to the homeless in San Francisco. For the past six years, Ramos has been photographing program participants -- he told the Guardian, at their own request.

The results are striking, studio-style portraits in both color and black-and-white. For “Acknowledged”''s exhibition, many of the pictures are displayed alongside stories and interviews. Respect, empathy, and a strange glamor suffuse each portrait. 

Like John Steinbeck, Ramos was born and raised in Salinas, California. Mentored by Richard Conrat, the former assistant of the famed photographer of Dust Bowl families, Dorothea Lange, Ramos brings a neo-Depression era aesthetic to his work. As the child of farmhands, he understands poverty. Ramos’ subjects are not the other -- they are unmistakably like any of us, after a bout of bad luck or a few missed paychecks.

In a recent phone interview with the Guardain, Ramos was emphatic about his project’s goals. “There are as many reasons for being homeless as there are homeless people,” he said. “Not all of them are out on the street. Many are in the shelter system. There are families with children in the school system who are technically homeless.” 

He said because of this invisible class of struggling, unhoused people, most of us don’t associate homelessness with anything other than the panhandler on the corner of Geary and Powell Streets. Through his work, Ramos wants to show the true face of homelessness -- in all its complexity, dignity, and humanity.

“Acknowledged” features portraits of well-dressed, loving families. There is the man in a business suit with haunting eyes who lost his way after accidentally causing a fatal accident. There are transgender adults who faced harsh family rejection, discrimination, and unemployment as a result of their need to express what they felt inside.

Ramos says that after hearing his subjects’ stories, he finds himself befriending them, seeing them again and again. He has photographed some of them up to 10 times. After each photo is developed, he sends a copy to his subject, or their subject’s family upon request. Sometimes his portraits are used to show family back home that estranged members are doing all right. 

Ramos subjects pose on a completely voluntary basis. While his project is undoubtedly artistic, it’s hard not to see it through another lens: as a free studio portrait service for those who would never be able to record their lives in any other way. The surprising sense of ease visible in the photos’ faces makes sense. These people are clients, not art objects. They feel at ease because they feel acknowledged. 

 

“Acknowledged”: Joe Ramos photo exhibit

Through March 25

Opening program (including expert panel on SF homelessness): 

Sat/28 2 p.m., free

San Francisco Public Library

100 Larkin, SF

(415) 557-4000

www.sfpl.org

 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Joe Ramos' mentor. He was actually taught by Richard Conrat. The Guardian apologizes for the error.