The woman with no shoes. I’ll call her Martha.
I’ve learned that there are innumerable photographers out there who say they do “homeless photography” and I completely agree with them. That’s exactly what they do. And this image of the barefoot woman will fall under that category if I don’t name her Martha.
People see an image of a faceless, destitute person in a gut wrenching position, and it churns up their insides for a second. As long as their eyes are on the image, their stomach twists and turns and they feel as though they may lose their lunch… Without a face, that person may be them.
But in the same instant, as they turn their eyes away to swallow the hard truth rising in their throat, they name the person… “Homeless”. This drives a wall between the person in the portrait and the viewer. When the viewer lives in a house and works a 9 to 5, that word “homeless” may as well be the wall of China. It’s a completely foreign word with no similarities to their own life. There is no basis of comparison. They feel pity, for this poor soul, but that is all. They may even pat themselves on the back for feeling sorry for our friend.
As the photographer, I failed when I didn’t wake her up. I don’t know why this woman is sleeping on the steps of the park with her sandals next to her and nothing more than a thin blanket as the sun sets and the temperature drops. I don’t have a story that will destroy the wall, one brick at a time. I wish I did.
I was sitting next to a kid named Matt, and I watched him shiver as the daylight disappeared and he gave detailed descriptions of watching his friend get shot in the face during a New Orleans gang fight last week. He ran away that night, and wound up in the middle of this skate park in St. Louis. I was riveted, but as I listened to Matt, my eyes kept finding a resting spot on Martha’s feet as she slept less than 10 feet away. Her feet havewalked many miles without shoes. The temperature will be just above freezing tonight. I had seen her face as I descended the steps to talk to Matt, and she looked to be in her late 50’s. My mind wondered to her past… who was this woman? Now I look at the image and I ask the same questions that you will if your eyes don’t turn away too quickly. Drugs would get me through this type of life if they didn’t get me there to begin with. Alcohol, crack, meth, heroine…. Anything that would numb the pain of some kind of trauma would also numb my feet to the sting of the rocks and the cold of the cement. How does she survive, and how does she make money? Is she a prostitute, or does she get the shit beat out of her by the men in her life? Maybe some version of both. Does she have an education, and does she know that there is a better life out there for her? Would she want a better life? Is she hopeful or is she on the brink of suicide? What does she pray for? Where is her family? How many people walked past her today without asking these questions?
Sitting so close to her, I told Matt that this was bothering me. He raised his eyebrows as if to say “don’t mess with her” and I stood up, placing a bag next to her that contained a few pairs of socks and some things that she might need. I suppressed my urge to wake her up and hug her, tell her that somebody loves her, and ask a million questions while I wash her feet. I am not naive, and I’m aware that even if I had woke her up, it wouldn’t have turned out the way I would hope. I can’t fix it. But this woman is not unlike me. She is not so different. I am not more loved than her.
My hope is that giving her a name will replace the title that the viewer wants to give her. Don’t let your eyes walk past this picture with pity. Call her Martha, don’t call her Homeless. The reality is that she is more than a stigma, and more than a stereotype. She is loved.
Shay is without question the craziest, most brave, and sacrificial friend I’ve ever had. She is wrapping up a 50 week voyage across the US in which she crosses a state line weekly. 50 states in 50 days. Project 50/50. Fifty weeks of traveling and giving away everything she can find to give.
Follow her on Twitter HERE.
Visit her website HERE.
And give anything you can to her cause, in any way you can find!!