Photographer Alan Newton captures the lives of the homeless
From the time the leaves started to turn and drop to the rise in spring temperatures, Alan Newton sat down and spoke with 24 homeless people living in Traverse City. A few are on the street by choice; but all are there by circumstance. Some are drug addicts, others are alcoholics. Some had lost jobs and others had lost health. Some have been living on the streets for years while others were just passing through.
Newton — a local photographer who has captured sporting events, concerts and festivals — is used to photographing what the rest of the world sees when it comes to Traverse City, but this new endeavor showed a different side, one not promoted on visitor brochures and websites.
Newton presents, “The Other Traverse City,” an exhibit featuring photographic portraits and interviews of 24 people living on the street. It will hang in Rinaldo Hall, located in the Grand Traverse Commons, during the month of July; including a reception on July 16, from 5-7 p.m.
ACCEPTANCE AND RESPECT
For Newton, the most challenging aspect of the project was acceptance.
“I thought, ‘What right do I have to be interviewing them?’” Newton asked himself. “The homeless community watches out for one-another here.”
Newton pointed to the recent media outburst in which it was revealed that Madonna’s brother was living underneath a bridge in town. Photographers from as far away as England and Brazil came to capture his image.
It’s the reason Ryan Hannon, the Goodwill Street Outreach coordinator, was hesitant at first when Newton approached him about photographing the homeless.
“A local TV station did a story and ended up shooting video of these people without permission,” said Hannon, who has developed a strong, respectful relationship with homeless persons he comes in regular contact with.
“They can pick up on someone who has the wrong motives fairly quickly,” he added.
Thanks to Hannon’s connection, Newton was introduced to folks fairly quickly without too much hesitation… aside from one man.
“Vanchenzo. I come in and this guy grills me. ‘What are you doing here? Why are you here? What are you going to do with the photos? Why are you taking them?” It wasn’t until he heard the okay from other guys in the street that Vanchenzo gave Newton the green light.
FACES OF THE HOMELESS
For some of the 24 interviewees, it took them days to open up and share their stories. At first, the questions were basic: Where are you from? How did you become homeless? How long have you been homeless? What would you like people to know about homelessness?
From there, Newton left it up to the interviewees to lead the conversation. Most he met at the United Methodist Church, one of the Safe Harbor locations, for a cup of coffee seated at a table.
“What I found is that I wasn’t leaving enough time,” said Newton. “I remember sometimes I’d have a half hour left and someone’s telling their story. Even though I had somewhere to be, I wouldn’t stop them. I thought, ‘Well, guess I’m late.’” Newton heard many stories, some heartwrenching.
“There was Lovie. Her portrait is of her hands over her face,” Newton demonstrated, softly placing both palms over his own face. “She was asked to leave adult foster care because she was incontinent. She had to move to the Goodwill Inn; and earlier, she had an aneurism.
“She had been working at a Dollar General as an assistant manager when her daughter died at the age of five because of a misdiagnosis. Lovie’s daughter would hold her face and say, ‘Mommy, you’re the most beautiful person in the world.’ “(Lovie) was very sad.” Then there is Ken. “This guy is 6’3,” 240 pounds with a big white beard and a big smile,” said Newton. “I was surprised because he told me he didn’t have a lot of friends. He was in the Navy and due to a condition, now he can’t lift more than 10 pounds. He lives near the Boardman Lake area and at the time, he was saving money for a tarp so he could cover his seating area. He has a car and likes to drive people and take them places.”
“He’s just a really nice guy,” Hannon added with a smile.
Others, like Jamie—a 19-year-old with a GED who was passing through town—tried desperately to find work, applying for nearly 30 jobs before moving on.
James, another young man, was working at Ponderosa when he got sick and spent several days in the hospital.
“When he came back, the company said, ‘Well we couldn’t find anyone to cover your shift. We don’t need you anymore,” recalled Newton.
FINDING FRIENDSHIP, FORMING BOUNDARIES
It was difficult for Newton to hear these stories and not feel an obligation to help.
“I realized one of the many important things was boundaries,” he said. “I had to think about if someone came to my house at night. What would I do? Well, I’d just give them a ride to the police station or something.
“Street people are smart. They will take graciously what they can.”
Hannon agreed, adding, “We don’t want to promote living on the streets, but we want to help them survive by providing them with that opportunity to get what they need at that moment.”
Last month, Street Outreach served 93 people in Grand Traverse County.
On that same note, both men stressed there’s a difference between someone receiving help and asking for help.
“It’s always the person’s choice,” Newton said. “The homeless hate to be portrayed as helpless. Take for example the bit with the guy and the cup. You mention that and it will set them off. They don’t want to be portrayed in that way.”
But it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “Sometimes (the public) cross the street when they’re walking towards a homeless person,” said Hannon. “There’s a lot of—I don’t know if you can say ignorance—but a lot of blinders on. There are others who are kind and considerate, like folks who leave their returnables in the alleyway.”
For Newton, the experience has created new friendships.
“Vanchenzo has been on the streets in LA, Chicago and here. We’ve sat down and talked Hemingway, we talked Harrison, Gabriel Garcia Marquez…he is very intelligent.
Vanchenzo was the guy who questioned me and said, ‘who the hell are you?’ “He misses his son. He’s not going to see his family again. For the interview, his quote was ‘I’m just a man still trying to find his way.’”
Newton hopes “The Other Traverse City” sparks conversation about the homeless. One such chance will be at the July 16 reception, from 5-7pm. However, instead of wine and appetizers, Newton is offering donation opportunities to Goodwill Industries for those who attend.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, I could spend $3 or $4 a head and we can have a nice glass of wine and a canapé and talk about the poor people of Traverse City,’” he mocked. “It just didn’t seem right.”
Donation envelopes will be provided at the reception, along with information on how to donate clothing and other items to the Goodwill Inn, which funds 70% of the Street Outreach Program.
For more information on Alan Newton’s work, visit newtonphotography.us.