Empathy or Exploitation…

First off let me start by saying how much I respect Thomas Hawk’s photography skills. He is one of the reasons I get motivated when I post photos because once in a while I post something that catches his eye and he marks it a fav on Zooomr or Flickr. On those days I am so excited because he is an everyman photography demi-god for many people. Or, maybe I’m just a huge fanboy.

The other day I saw on my feed reader a post titled: Introducing Christopher and the Start of My $2 Portraits Project. I clicked on it and was greeted with this beautiful and haunting portrait.

Christopher, a Portrait by Thomas Hawk
Photo by Thomas Hawk

Thomas’ project and something that he says he will do for the rest of his life is:

From this week going forward until the day that I die I am going to offer $2 to anyone who asks me for money in exchange for their portrait. While I’m taking their portrait I’m going to ask their name and try to learn a little bit about them. I plan on doing this for the rest of my life — assuming that I can afford to.

So far there has been a ton of reaction to this project. Thomas always gets a ton of reaction to his work as be is very vocal and can be controversial. Heck he photographs every person who has kicked him out of places that he had every right to be in. But I digress…

I was wondering what you (my readers) thought of his project.

Is Thomas showing empathy in asking for a portrait in response to being asked for money?
He is also taking the time to learn a bit about each person that he makes a portrait of. How many times have I quickly walked down the street avoiding all eye contact with the homeless in fear that they would ask for money and I would have to interact because I was uncomfortable. In this way, in that Thomas makes an acknowledgment of each person as a person I find it commendable. In stopping to talk to each person and give them money and learn about them I find it amazing.

Is Thomas exploiting each person as he photographs them and then posts the photo on Flickr, Zooomr and blogs about each photo?
Yes the photos go up on his blog, Flickr and Zooomr. However, I think it is a good thing, because he puts the face of a person right there for you to see. Do you turn away out of embarrassment at how you have personally treated the homeless? Does the photo make you want to do the same thing as Thomas? Does it make you want to do something, anything to help?

No, I don’t think he is being exploitive. Thomas is well known around the internet, he is an internet rockstar and has internet fame. Thomas has this fame because of his amazing photos and how he interacts with people. People like him or loath him, but they are aware of the things he says, blogs about and photographs. So because he has some internet fame he has people coming out of the woodwork either praising or decrying his project. But he’s got people talking.

I don’t think that he is being exploitive, in his heart. I read this other post from earlier in the year and I think that the interaction Thomas had on that bridge is what is partly motivating this personal project.

Either way he is doing something, something to bring this issue of homelessness into our minds, to challenge our thoughts and how we treat others. If this makes you stop and think then he has done a service to you. Whether you love him or hate him for what he does, he does make you think.

So, What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Empathy or Exploitation…”

  1. America has a way of ignoring it’s homeless problem. It needs to be in our faces and made obvious and it needs to feel real for people to acknowledge it more.

    His project sounds like it might do that. He is saying look at this homeless person I helped today, this is some stuff about them, they are a real actual person that has no home. It sounds like his genuine interest is in helping and not exploitative.

    Sadly, in many cities helping the homeless can be dangerous to do. Predators often pretend to be homeless.

    This sounds like it will be an interesting project, and perhaps more people will follow suit with the helping. In our current state of recession I have a feeling more and more people are going to find themselves homeless as well.

    Now I’ve rambled on and on …. ooops!

    Loretta’s last blog post..Ready for ….. WINTER?

  2. Loretta,
    Is it just America that ignores the homeless? Are there places where there are no homeless? I would think that if there was such a place then that would be the one place where the homeless are not ignored.

    I agree with you that there will be more homeless very soon as the economy takes more of a downturn. People are losing their homes left and right as well.

    And I hadn’t thought about the predators pretending to be homeless. While that is possibly one of my reasons for not being comfortable helping someone I don’t know.

    I really appreciate your comments. Thanks.

  3. The first thought that came to my mind was “if there was a whore on the side of the street would he ask to take their picture and then have sex with them” it screams exploitation.

    I have no problem with the homeless, I usually have a backpack in my car that has things like soap, combs, non-perishables, maybe a gift card to mcdonalds, things like that. I won’t give them money but I give them things they can use to survive. It lights up their faces to know people care.

    Does he care? “Here, I’ll give you $2 if you let me take your picture.” Most people who drive by will give them two dollars and expect nothing in return. Yeah, he’s bringing it front and center for as much attention as he gets but does that make it right? What is he really doing to improve these people’s lives? I think this issue runs deeper than just the photos he’s taking…

    I went and looked at his his first post about Christopher, there’s so much more to these people than just the surface “he’s a dad, he’s 35, he lives in San Fran, etc.”

    The real story lies in why they’re homeless, and many of them will talk about it. A few years ago in college we had to do a project that put us out of our comfort zone, it put us some place we never thought we’d see each ourselves. A friend became homeless for a day. She dressed the part, smelled the part, looked the part. She got to have an in depth conversation with another homeless person who’s corner she stationed herself at (which is against the rules). He was homeless not because he couldn’t get out of a rut, but because he refused to live by this worlds standards and rules. Whatever he got daily from handouts, he only took what he needed and he gave the rest to the homeless shelters so that they could help people in need. Those are the stories that people need to hear. Not the surface stuff, but the deep stuff. Many homeless are homeless because they’re felon’s, they did one wrong thing and now can’t get jobs. That’s what the world needs to see, there’s no reform for these (most of them) people. That’s what the world needs to see, they need to not just see the “oh, I’m homeless, help me out” they need to see what we’re not doing as a human race to help each other out. We’re all so worried about ourselves that what other people are going through don’t matter.

    Christopher has three kids that live in the bay area, are they also on the streets? That’s what we need to see through this project…

    I’ll step off my box now…

    Courtney’s last blog post..Bolder Boulder 08

  4. Courtney,

    Your initial reaction aside. Read it over, it is unfair and not a valid comparison. With that aside I think you have some excellent points here.

    The backpack of supplies, that is a very generous thing. I’ve never heard of anyone who does that.

    I don’t think that most people will give $2. Most people would walk right on by. I’ve been parked at a red light many times where a homeless person walks up and down the row of cars with a sign. And as far as I can see up and down the majority of cars offer that person nothing. So I’d say $2 for a photo is not a bad thing. That $2 could be for food or shelter, you don’t know what difference it would make.

    Then you get into the meat of the argument and that I liked. The surface stuff that Thomas mentioned about Christopher was pretty light. Whether or not he found out more and we don’t know. I think the story behind the person should run deeper than that. Your points about how we care only about our own lives vs other people are important as well.

  5. i think it is not exploitive. but it is a brave thing to do. not that i am being pessimistic cold but what if these people try to ask for more money and harass him at the same time? pretty scary thought.

    there are a number of Filipinos who take photos of the street children and folks but hadnt heard of someone paying for it. i dunno, maybe they give money, too, without the promotion, or announcement.

    narissa’s last blog post..Thursday Challenge: Fun at the Beach

  6. Narissa,
    The thing I have noticed about Thomas is that he doesn’t take harassment. He firmly stands up for things. I think that he’s a bit braver than I because you really don’t know someone’s motivations and could be in danger.

    I think the promotion and announcement is less of self promotion and more of motivation for the people who follow his work closely. Many people who follow his work in photography are taking up this mission too and they are certainly not as popular as him.

  7. Here in downtown Nashville, we have an estimated 1500 homeless within one square mile. I once had a warehouse apartment across from a shelter and it was absolutely amazing to see how many people gathered for breakfast. I’ve learned a lot of names, faces, and personalities, but I think the thing I’ve best learned is that every single person has their own story. You never know where they’ve been or what they’ve been through.

    I think, too often, people try to generalize and stereotype those who are homeless, and it’s just ridiculous. It’s much the same reasoning I don’t care to debate politics. People are too quick to generalize “liberal” or “conservative” when in truth there is so much in between. While Hawk’s work (or other’s) may not be exploitive, there are plenty of individuals being outright exploitive and it really is a fine line.

    Here in Nashville it’s a big no-no but you still see people doing it. An example of one person who did it the right way is San Houses. There hasn’t been a post in quite some time, but it’s beautiful stuff. It’s a collection of images and interviews that actually did something positive without any gain for the artist. Imagine that… a selfless act!

    I never photograph folks who are homeless and don’t plan to ever do so. I’m certain there are better ways for me to help than by trading someone $2 to take their picture.

    Eddie Christy’s last blog post..We’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – Photo A Day #54

  8. Eddie,
    Heck I don’t photograph anyone unless I know them. I am not that adventurous to go out and talk to someone I don’t know. The Sans Houses blog is very interesting and looks like it is not without merit.

    I think that the money isn’t really the motivation with Hawk but rather to spend some time with a person and treat them as a human being.

    And I agree stereotypes are ridiculous.

  9. Dale,
    I totally understand the desire not to soapbox. Your point was well… to the point. Thanks very much.

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