When I was 16, I volunteered for Mitch Snyder in an abandoned building in NW Washington DC. Mitch Snyder was an advocate for the homeless and was making news by creating awareness about the problems in Washington DC.
My memory is vague with the details, and I don't remember how or what made me become so fascinated with him, but it was enough to head to DC, by myself, and volunteer at his shelter. I brought my camera. I wanted to help document his story. And theirs. My only real experience with photojournalism was capturing the details of what most 16 year olds and their friends document and that was nothing that I was about to see.
I thought I might get a chance to meet him. But I didn't. I was put to work in the kitchen and I put my camera down. I worked the day through. Wondering about each one. What each story was about. Why were they there. How did they get to this point in their lives. I am an observer. This is the best way I learn.
My camera was never used that day. I did not have the confidence to ask if it would be okay. I sometimes still don't. But there were so many stories to tell. And there still are. My father always reminds me that the only difference between me and them is nothing. They have just come on to some hard times. And we are all human.
This year I had an opportunity and the courage to tell some of their stories with my camera by contributing to the Help Portrait. The idea behind the Help-Portrait is simple: find someone in need, take their portrait, print their portrait, and deliver it.
So before Christmas, I set up a portrait session at The Lighthouse Shelter. The shelter gave me a list of people who were interested, which consisted of about 7 people. I finished the day photographing 26. Both individuals and families.
I couldn't stop as the snow fell quietly on that Sunday afternoon and people came to find warmth and shelter. I listened all day long and observed, not only behind my camera, but out in front of it. I listened to the mom who needed a belt for her van so that she could drive to see her family in Virginia. How she took her two small daughters to the auto repair store, by bus, to purchase a belt. ( I had remembered seeing her earlier that day waiting on the corner, in the sleet and snow, without a coat, and her girls and their stroller waiting for the bus. ) As she told her story, a man overheard and offered to change the belt for her as he was a skilled mechanic. She offered him $25. And he agreed.
A small community of resourceful people all helping each other. They aren't just like me. They are more than me. Resourceful. Kind. Strong. Beautiful. I left that day feeling humbled with perspective.
Two weeks later, I wrapped and delivered their prints for Christmas. What turned out to be a gift for them, selfishly became more of a gift for me. Although not my intention, I am truly grateful.