The Barefoot Homeless Man, the Cop, the Tourist, and Me

On November 20, I was walking around midtown Manhattan making street photographs. After walking all day, my feet were pretty tired, and I was kind of operating on auto pilot– not quite on my A game as far as getting shots. The light had faded anyway, and I was basically just killing time waiting for Sacha to get out of work so we could go to dinner. Crossing the street, I noticed a tall, thin guy who’s feet looked as if they were suffering much worse than mine. He was walking the cold pavement with no shoes. Instinctively, I snapped a photo “from the hip” without pausing to adjust my exposure, focus, or lift the camera to my eye to compose. A few minutes later, I realized that I could see the same man across the street, still walking barefoot, panhandling, and carrying a virginal white pair of leather Nike trainers in one hand. The shoes piqued my curiosity enough for me to cross back over the street to take a closer look. As I walked closer, I snapped another (equally marginal) photograph, but instead of steadying myself to take a more considered shot, I put my camera down, looked again, and decided to ask the guy if he was ok. “yeah, I’m fine,” he replied politely. I didn’t want to get into his business, but I suggested that he might want to put on the shoes as it was a cold evening. He just smiled benevolently at me and nodded. Right. “None of my business,” I thought to myself, and walked on.

The pictures I took of him are none too sharp, and will win no awards for innovative photographic technique, composition, compassion, newsworthiness, or any other qualities, human or photographic. I would never have considered posting these images if not for the fact that the man in question, recently identified in the press as Jeffrey Hillman, shortly thereafter became known as the world’s most famous barefoot homeless man, due to the magic of social media viral contagion and the spontaneous act of kindness performed by NYPD officer Larry DePrimo caught on Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster’s cell phone camera. After that happened I definitely held off on posting the images, if only because I didn’t want to be seen as less compassionate than a NYPD cop. And this made me think.

No matter how many years I do this, and how many thousands of images I make, I’ve often been conflicted with making pictures on the streets. Should I ask first, relegating myself to stiffly posed images that really don’t capture the essence of the situation that attracted me in the first place? Only photograph people like me? (Maybe the bald middle-aged downwardly mobile demographic is a little recognized niche market just waiting to be tapped!) Avoid photographing homeless or poor people for fear of being labeled exploitive? Avoid photographing the rich out of fear of being critical? Avoid photographing women for fear of being seen as creepy? Avoid photographing children out of fear of being mistaken for a pedophile? Maybe just sell all of my cameras, donate the proceeds to charity, tie on an apron and start cooking in homeless shelters? What’s a street photographer to do? For now on, the answer for me is to shoot first, and ask questions later, at least if I think I can get away with it.

Who is to say what is going on in the mind of another person? My fears may be a result of reading too much postmodern theory, and have nothing to do with the experience of someone else who may or may not ever notice, object, or care that I’m taking a picture. Even if I cannot come up with the compassion, the time, or the courage to directly intervene in the life of a passing stranger, maybe someone else seeing an image might be so inspired, or just smile at the recognition of a human moment to which they could relate. Do investment bankers worry about this kind of shit? Regardless, the consequence of NOT taking a picture is that the world will go on indifferently turning. The lucky tourist who took the suddenly viral image of the officer helping Mr. Hillman certainly did not let any interpretation of critical theory inhibit her shutter finger, and the resulting image managed to make millions of people feel a little bit better about humanity for a day or so. Until it was disclosed that Jeffrey is still homeless, and still wandering the streets of Manhattan sans shoes. An isolated act of kindness, or a photograph, can only do so much.

As it turns out, my initial instinct about Jeffrey that caused me to ask after his well-being, was right. He wasn’t going barefoot due to a lack of access to footwear, but because some inner demon only known to himself drove his actions. I have a feeling that it would have made little difference to him had I taken a moment to get a better shot. I’d like to think that his recent interest to photographers, and thus the general public, could make a positive difference in his life, but that’s a choice that Jeffery is going to have to make on his own. As for me, I’ll probably hang onto my cameras, but I am still thinking about putting on that apron at some point. If my photographs can’t change the world, maybe my secret soup recipes will help a bit.

Posted by scoopneil

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