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But some do not climb; and below, the earth is littered with them.
May 10, 2009 7:38 PM   Subscribe

"I photograph people who skirt the edges of things; people whose connection to the broader flow is murky or obscured. Mistaken as more, less or different than they are; they aren’t really seen and don’t really belong. That’s everyone sometimes; but some more often. I try to establish a line for a moment. I hope to connect. And I see the most beautiful and the most heartbreaking things."
posted by parudox (34 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
Beautiful photographs, but could a mod throw that in quotes so it's clear this isn't a self-link?
posted by ocherdraco at 7:54 PM on May 10, 2009


quotes added.
posted by mathowie at 8:05 PM on May 10, 2009


Incredible. I always wonder what they think when some random well-to-do photojournalist comes by to capture them. I mean, I suppose they might like someone who actually takes the time to get to know them (as this photographer clearly has), but it still must be strange to be both disenfranchised and put on public display for it. They really do surrender any judgment of themselves to the whims of the photographer.
posted by spiderskull at 8:12 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


These are profound portraits that remind me of Dorothea Lange's work.
posted by gallois at 8:51 PM on May 10, 2009


Really? More Arbus than Lange, if you ask me.

Good photos--but seriously, what a pompous ass. All those smug middle-class commenters cooing and ah-ing over the "eyes of these noble lost souls" make me want to puke.

If I were a street person, I'd tell him to take his patronizing objectification and fuck off.
posted by aquafortis at 9:56 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


You Have Seen Their Faces, Now Let Us Praise Famous Men.
posted by klangklangston at 10:42 PM on May 10, 2009


Good photos--but seriously, what a pompous ass. All those smug middle-class commenters cooing and ah-ing over the "eyes of these noble lost souls" make me want to puke.

Wait... other people's comments make this photographer a pompous ass? How does that work?

If I were a street person, I'd tell him to take his patronizing objectification and fuck off.

Given the amazing collection of portraits of street people this man has amassed, I'd say that the average street person he meets is far from considering him patronizing and do not, indeed, tell him to fuck off. To gain their trust to the extent that he has been able, to photograph them as he does, speaks to a high degree of empathy and spiritual development on the part of Mr. Tom Stone, I'd say.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:47 PM on May 10, 2009 [6 favorites]


an amazing collection. thanks for sharing.

i get the impression his interest in the homeless is totally genuine and non-deuchebaggy. from the 'About' section on the photographer's webpage:
"Tom Stone was born on a train outside of Mexico City traveling to Puerto Angel, Oaxaca... He spent his early childhood with his mother communally in Los Angeles' famed Source Family; and after its dispersion, in various nomadic settings in Hawaii and California. A graduate of Harvard University... he worked in Silicon Valley for a number of years..."
posted by bilgepump at 10:54 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


It feels like exploitation to me.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 10:54 PM on May 10, 2009


Photographs like these tend to provoke a two-sided reaction in me. My first instinct, the knee-jerk one, is to say "yeah? so you took a picture of the guy who hangs out in front of the laundromat asking for change. So what? Why's he so important - he's a bum; I don't care how photogenic he is, or how tragic, he still can't have my spare change."

Then the second reaction kicks in, the one that recognizes that there are innumerable reasons why human beings arrive at their own individual plights, and that it's not my place to judge them. That's when I look at shots like these and admire the photographer's ability to get a natural shot of the subject, or to capture a moment spent on the street. It's this second reaction that allows me to see the timelessness and effectiveness of these shots, to realize that these frozen moments may stand the test of time and serve as a record of current events as we experience them in future history books.

Nevertheless, I still don't give money to bums.
posted by Graygorey at 11:11 PM on May 10, 2009


Some amazing stories in there.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:18 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is amazing. Thanks.

I'll avoid the 'exploitation/pompous' bit, because I've just read a whole bunch of people's stories, from a whole world of people out there that I don't see much of. I like to think that counts for something.
posted by six-or-six-thirty at 11:30 PM on May 10, 2009


Wait... other people's comments make this photographer a pompous ass?

No. I found the tone of his commentary accompanying the photos off-putting.
posted by aquafortis at 11:40 PM on May 10, 2009


It does not feel like exploitation to me.

Working in the trades I came across a number of people who'd had hard luck, being in the recovery community then and since I've come across plenty more. The street is not as far away as many naively believe. Yes, it can happen to you, too. Especially if you don't have a strong social system behind you, friends and family. Or let's say you decide to try that crack pipe -- and you're susceptible... Or you decide to smoke that speed -- and you're susceptible... The streets can come unbelievably fast, a few mistakes and ZAM !!! you're over on the east side and it's four am and it's raining and you're doing what you need to do ...

My father was particularly warm-hearted, would always pick up hitch-hikers, give them what he could, a few bucks and as much love as he could get into the time they spent together. He once picked up a homeless guy -- this was back when they were called bums -- brought him home, the guy showered, he ate with us, my mother cleaned his clothes, slept in our home, he went on his way next day but gave my father his most prized possession -- a very tattered collection of Mark Twain short stories and essays. It will be on my shelf until the day I die, it is to me a symbol of my fathers kindnesses and decency and sense of brotherhood.

My father casts a long shadow.

I was in San Francisco two weeks ago, I was struck yet again by how many people are on the street there, more by far than in Austin, Houston, Chicago, the three cities I know best. I wonder what it is that contributes to such a large population of people living that life there, maybe all California cities are this way?

Phoenix has a huge number of people on the streets, it's the roughest scene I've come across, it's almost impossible to break out once you're on the street there, it's hot and it's harsh and it's cruel as hell. A cold-hearted city in the desert. This photographer would be busy all day every day.

These photos are particularly beautiful, breathtaking. I'm walking through this collection slowly, seeing so much in these images. I can't help but wonder if he is maybe taking six or eight shots of these people, then working the best one to best affect; if not, he is either unbelievably gifted or unbelievably lucky.

Great catch, parudox, thanx for posting.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:56 PM on May 10, 2009 [1 favorite]


spiritual development

Ugh.

I'm with aquafortis. Poverty tourism--THE BEAUTY IN THEIR INNOCENT AND PAINED FACES! THE NOBILITY OF THEIR SCARS AND WRINKLES! THE $300 LENS ON MY $1000 DSLR CAMERA...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:21 AM on May 11, 2009


To gain their trust to the extent that he has been able, to photograph them as he does, speaks to a high degree of empathy and spiritual development on the part of Mr. Tom Stone, I'd say.

Not really. Do you really think that when these people confided in him, they knew they were going to be treated as representatives of "Homelessness with a Capital H?"

It's not like he took pictures of his friends who happen to live on the street; he approached these people because he wanted something from them, i.e. a killer picture. It's obvious he thinks he's doing them a favor by "giving them a voice" when he's really opening up the most intimate details of their lives to a bunch of insensitive cretins on flickr who draw little boxes around their eyes and tattoos and clothing and natter on about how crazy, pitiful, and/or fuckable they are.

In my opinion, it's a betrayal of trust.
posted by aquafortis at 12:27 AM on May 11, 2009


I'm assuming he is shooting in RAW and then destroying the shadows and highlights to get a kind of HDR effect, which kind of ruins it for me; too fake and flat, a kind of veil between the viewer and the picture that doesn't need to be there.
posted by Poagao at 12:32 AM on May 11, 2009


I should also add that truly great imagery is only hurt by so much description in the caption, while mediocre imagery is not helped by it.
posted by Poagao at 12:34 AM on May 11, 2009


I thought the photographs were strong, some were quite compelling, but the captions made me want to retch.
rebecca doesn't fit. as though she's not where she's supposed to be. i see her as i pass. she is almost ghostly. she sways and bends like the only tree on a hill; unprotected. she seems resigned to a losing battle.
Bad writing accompanied with a creepy aloofness. He went to Harvard, incidentally, just so you know. I mean, he grew up in a commune but you know, he's smart too. Just. ugh.
posted by From Bklyn at 2:10 AM on May 11, 2009


From Bklyn, yeah, I have to agree with you there. That quote... um, no. Just, no. And I hadn't actually read his captions, so now I know why. I was somehow shielding myself from such unpleasantness.

He really should just stick to the images, and leave off the rest.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 2:59 AM on May 11, 2009


I was admiring the "heartbreaking" picture and then I scrolled down and read that he was a suicide victim.
posted by andoatnp at 6:33 AM on May 11, 2009


opening up the most intimate details of their lives to a bunch of insensitive cretins on flickr who draw little boxes around their eyes and tattoos and clothing and natter on about how crazy, pitiful, and/or fuckable they are.

Taking a picture of a person, and posting it on the internet, hardly qualifies as "opening up the most intimate details of their lives". These are just pictures; they let you see what someone looks like, in this case someone you otherwise wouldn't look at very hard.

I don't think there's any way to distribute such photos that won't allow shallow, exploitative people to see them too. I also don't think that what we see in these comments is exploitation. All I see are people marvelling at the emotions that the pictures make them feel. That might be shallow, but in order to qualify as exploitation, it would need to have some kind of effect on the subjects of the pictures. I don't think many of these commenters are going to start giving money to homeless charities, but I also don't think that any of them are going to become any more callous and condescending to the homeless as a result of these pictures.

They're nice pictures.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:40 AM on May 11, 2009


Incredible. I always wonder what they think when some random well-to-do photojournalist comes by to capture them.
  • "For all this 'moving photography' claptrap, I bet this guy has a wallet full of money, and he's not gonna give me a fucking dime"
  • "If there weren't so many people around, I would jack this guy for his fancy camera, bet I could get $100 for it easy..."
  • "It sure would be nice to sleep inside."
  • "I wonder if he knows my mom, maybe he'll use these photos of me to help her find me! Oh I miss you so much mommy, I am so sorry..."
  • "I wonder if this guy's a doctor, I'm not sure what gangrene is, but I reckon my foot isn't supposed to look this way.
  • etc.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 8:01 AM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


great link. thanks for posting.
posted by msconduct at 8:04 AM on May 11, 2009


Taking a picture of a person, and posting it on the internet, hardly qualifies as "opening up the most intimate details of their lives".

True, but if you read the captions, you'll see he did exactly that. Unless he embellished their stories for dramatic/tragic effect. Which I wouldn't put past him, either.
posted by aquafortis at 8:48 AM on May 11, 2009


I think that it's interesting that the photos are all close-up portraits that don't allow the viewer to see anything about where they are taken. The entire context is dependent on his text.

There's an powerful article about the ethics of the photography of suffering, that used to be on-line for free, but unfortunately is only available through paid sites now.

It's called "The Appeal of Experience; the Dismay of Images: Cultural Appropriations of Suffering in Our Times" by Joan and Arthur Kleinman, (Daedalus, Vol. 125, 1996). It revolves around the story of a photographer of the 1980s Ethiopian famine who committed suicide soon after receiving a pulitzer for his photograph of a child with a vulture lurking behind him. There were questions about his choice to wait over a half hour for the vulture's wings to spread for the shot, as opposed to helping the child.
posted by umbú at 8:59 AM on May 11, 2009


As obviously my comment was too oblique, this poverty-porn is drawn from the tradition of two famous books, You Have Seen Their Faces, and Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (in addition to the FSA photos of Lange). In those cases, there was an explicit discussion—most prevalent in Let Us…—over the dangers of exploitation by media and how being observed changes lives. There's also a fair amount of criticism over whether Lange posed her sharecropper family, and how that photo becoming famous made their lives worse.

Given that history, these photos both lack the compositional sense to make them distinct—I doubt anyone will remember any particular face in a month or so—and theoretically bankrupt. It's great that the photographer didn't mean them to be exploitative, or that they have good intentions, but how does being on Flickr help these people? At least the three projects I mention had an explicit goal of publicizing strains of poverty that were outside the general experience. That's done—the folks who are unaware that urban poverty exists and looks like this are those so sheltered that I have a hard time imagining they're connected to any media sources. And the idea that there's some sort of nobility in "telling their stories" is undercut by the maudlin text and glurgy responses. This is art for people who want their assumptions and empathy validated, this is art for folks who want to look at pictures of poor people rather than helping them. It would be nice if it inspired someone to spend a few shifts at a soup kitchen, but I don't think that's going to happen.

There's also a fairly decent argument along Sontag lines for arguing that art like this makes it less likely that these folks will be helped. By presenting the shots in such a banal, uniform way, much like the aesthetics of war gore in photojournalism, it deadens the response of the viewer. After that brief moment of, "Aww," there's nowhere to go so no one goes anywhere, and that urban poverty becomes acceptable as part of the landscape because it is documented, the same way that presentations of violence as real help distance us from the visceral horror of violence once they become over-prevalent.
posted by klangklangston at 10:01 AM on May 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


For what it's worth, he says 30% of the price of prints is donated, though he doesn't provide specifics. The prints are apparently enough to support him, so it's probably not a token gesture.
posted by parudox at 12:17 PM on May 11, 2009


Aren't these tightly-cropped headshots just Rorschach tests -- the viewer projects onto them whatever they choose to see. Interesting comparison with the post of a week or so ago presenting sets of four headshots and asking viewers to pick which one is the criminal.
Anyway, with the setup stating that these are people unconnected to the broader flow (yek) and who don't really belong (yek), I was expecting photos showing the whole person in their environment where those descriptions might make sense. How do I know they "don't belong" from a headshot alone, except the photographer tells me what to think. There are also plenty of people living in comfortable houses who are unconnected to the broader flow and don't belong, but I guess they are harder to access than street people.
posted by binturong at 1:08 PM on May 11, 2009


Great post! I refuse to jump on the exploitation bandwagon. This guy can really photograph a face and I don't much care where he finds his faces.

I didn't read his commentary though because I generally dislike having a photographer tell me what I'm supposed to see in a picture. But that's just my personal taste.
posted by dchrssyr at 4:29 PM on May 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: This is art for people who want their assumptions and empathy validated
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:56 PM on May 11, 2009


Also from the same flickr user: "Club pix etc." Homeless people, showgirls, whtvr it's all the face of America rite.
posted by munyeca at 6:22 PM on May 11, 2009


This guy can really photograph a face and I don't much care where he finds his faces.

Agreed. Were it not for his commentary, I wouldn't have looked at these gorgeous portraits and thought "exploitation!"--because it just looks like he can make anyone compelling and lovely to look at. I still don't think his photographs are inherently exploitative because they are excellent without relying on the emotional kick of "you are looking at despair..." in order for the images to have impact. But since he does go on and on in his descriptions, it's a little hard to tune out.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:37 PM on May 11, 2009


Aren't these tightly-cropped headshots just Rorschach tests -- the viewer projects onto them whatever they choose to see.

Isn't that true of most (all?) art?
posted by deborah at 12:38 AM on May 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


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