New York

Homeless In America

The homeless offer vivid evidence of the failure of government social policies in the ’80s; at the feast of apparent prosperity offered up by the Reagan era they serve as an unwelcome ghost, a nagging reminder that not everyone is allowed at the table. Both city and federal administrations continue to act as if the problem did not exist, even as the evidence of its spread can be seen nationwide, whether in the encampments of homeless across from the White House or in the growing number of panhandlers to be found in virtually every American city. The great moral force of this modest show stems from its willingness to address this emotionally charged and politically tangled problem.

“Homeless in America” is, unabashedly, a didactic show, in the tradition of moral witness and social activism that has marked documentary photography since at least the time of Lewis Hine. Organized in Washington, D.C. by Families for the Homeless and the National Mental Health Association (with private support from Triangle Industries, Fannie Mae, and Eastman Kodak) , the show and accompanying book make little attempt to alter the rhetoric of that tradition. Instead, the participating photographers——Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, Eli Reed, Bill Pierce, Stephen Shames, and others—use the familiar techniques of documentary style: working with handheld cameras, focusing on individuals or families to personalize their subjects, presenting their work as small black and white prints with brief descriptive captions. Such an unadventurous approach, though, achieves a great deal here. Even if too many of the pictures fall over into curdled sentimentality, as a whole the show manages to cut through preconceptions about homelessness; most notably, it challenges common notions of who the homeless are, arguing that their numbers include blacks and whites, women and men, families and single people, young and old, people living in cities, suburbs, small towns, and the country. Whether or not such a sweeping portrayal of homelessness is balanced, it helps untangle the problem from the web of prejudices—racial, regional, cultural——that surrounds it.

“Homeless in America” takes no stand on the issue of how best to deal with the problem, whether through government intervention or private charity. Some of the pictures in the show could even be used to argue that the problem of homelessness can never be solved completely—for example, teenagers, such as the one Mary Ellen Mark photographed in Venice, California, would presumably continue to run away from home no matter what. But by adopting the rhetoric, however sentimental, of an earlier documentary model, this project gives specificity to the statistics of homelessness, and shows them to be the sum of a diverse array of individual situations. This is the traditional function of documentary photography — to provide visual evidence of the particularities of a social situation, to allow us to recognize the experiential texture of the plight of others. In its unpretentious way, “Homeless in America” accomplishes this simple goal well.

Charles Hagen