January 18, 2008

street photography and the homeless

Filed under:, , — cwage @ 7:11 pm

There's some interesting discussion here that I find fascinating. It's worth reading, if you can get over the self-importance of some of the posts. (As my friend Melissa put it, it's like some of them are going to the zoo.) The debate centers on the ethics of photographing homeless people, in general. Standard ethics and most jurisdictions of law operate on the principle that basically photographing anyone in public is fair game. They have no expectation of privacy, yadda yada. The interesting argument in this thread is that for a homeless person, public spaces are their home -- they have nowhere else to go. So is it still ethical to take their picture without asking permission?

Living downtown, naturally, I've been exposed to Nashville's growing homeless problem -- as any reader of my blog knows, since I practically never shut up about it. I've tried, with varying levels of success (read: not much) to find time to get involved -- either merely arguing about it on the internet or trying to volunteer when I can. But one thing I've never really done much of is photography of homeless people. I've never felt quite right about it. But let me back up.

It all started even before I really got into photography too seriously, and I ran across someone that had some pictures of homeless people around Nashville on flickr. I wish I could find it, but there was one (very good!) portrait of a particular guy that I recognized. The comments on the flickr pic were hilarious. They were all like "I can see the pain in his eyes" or "that face probably has a million stories to tell!! stoic and full of pride!!" and all this other bullshit. This is hilarious, of course, because I recognized the guy. I was like "stoic and full of pride?? That's the guy that spit at me cus I didn't give him money last week." I mean, not that I don't have compassion for the guy, but the utter wankery in these comments just totally turned me off. It took me a long time to really put my finger on what it specifically was that bothered me about it. Over the last few years I've seen the work that goes into advocacy for homeless issues, and the work done by people that are actually out there working for change. So, when I increasingly run across people taking pictures of homeless people and effusively glowing about how they really "connected" with them, it strikes me as a little hypocritical. It's easy to ask a homeless dude his name and take his picture with your fancy digital camera and go home to your warm bed feeling really good about yourself because you actually talked to a homeless person and then showing everyone your soulful portrait. It's a lot harder to do something that actually effects change. There's one guy in that thread:

Many times the homeless people I photograph have a little jar or cup in front of them. This may sound unethical itself, but usually combined with a few words some loose change will make them realize you are not against them. This is usually their main concern.

Yeah, you're a real humanitarian, dude. Anyways, so skip forward to today, where I've been increasingly experimenting with different forms of photography.. trying to have fun and learn about them all. Recently I've been trying my hand at some street photography. Street photography is a wide umbrella, and I suppose it depends on what you want to do with it. I'm also intently following the turf war in Nashville between advocates for the homeless and the encroaching upper-class that wants them gone, basically. It angers me when I talk to people that talk about how homeless people "have no excuse" because there's "ample help" available -- while I'm seeing people sleeping on the street in the cold, and they all tell me the same thing: there's nowhere to go. The rescue mission is full, and abysmally run to boot. But it's one thing to argue about this on the Internet, and another to just .. take a picture of it. Maybe it'd be harder to argue with. I had my camera with me (surprise!) the night that I ran across the metro park rangers herding a group of homeless people sleeping at riverfront out of the park. When I asked one of the guys where they were told to go, he just shrugged. It's a picture of this sort of thing going on that's hard to argue with, and sometimes I think this is the sort of thing I want to capture. (As it happens, the few pictures I did try to take that night were woefully underexposed because I was trying to use a new camera mode at the time.)

So, anyways. I don't really know where I was going with this. I am just thinking out loud. The homeless people are undeniably a part of the neighborhood I live in -- I feel like it's something I want to capture somehow, but I am not sure how, and I am not sure how I feel about the ethics involved. My friend Melissa's take is that basically you should just ask someone's permission to take their picture in general. No dilemma. I am mostly inclined to agree -- I think it's common courtesy. But there is a sortof aspect of photography that is about capturing a moment that is irreconcilable with actually asking for permission. This picture, for example, or this one. I had reservations even about posting these, but in these cases, I think it's a little different. It's not so much the person that is the subject of the photograph but their condition -- the moment. And obviously asking for permission to take the picture is not compatible since you'd have to ... wake them up.

Last night when I was out wandering around some dude on the corner stopped me.. "hey that's a nice picture camera you got.. hey listen i don't mean no harm etc etc but i just need a buck if you could help me out, you can do anything you want.. take my picture whatever.. just help me out". It's like.. when faced with that level of desperation, how can you feel like you're really doing anything worthwhile? How do you take someone's picture after that and not just feel totally dirty and exploitive? It's an interesting dilemma, and something I find myself thinking about a lot.

January 15, 2008


Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 10:07 am

So, the final vote on the "aggressive panhandling" bill is tonight. (Some background, including my stance on the whole thing can be found here). I just got e-mail from Skip Courtney, president of the URA, sent to the Metro council.

I know each of you already is aware of this, but hopefully my reminder will serve to attach a special beacon to this critical bill. As President of the Urban Residents Association, I represent a special group of pioneers who have taken a considerable risk to repopulate the downtown core of Nashville.


As pioneers, we understand that there will be challenges to overcome.


We also represent a new class of citizens who spend time in the downtown core.

Ow. I think I just sprained my eyeballs from excessive eyerolling. It goes on like that. "Special group of pioneers"?? Give me a break. He's right at least that they represent a class of citizens, but it's not a new one. Here we have a group of upper-middle class people repopulating a formerly destitute urban area, panicking at the mere sight of actual homeless people, and resorting to government authority to ban public behaviour, and still managing to be a martyr about it. Only in America. Sometimes I think the members of the URA need a field trip over to east Nashville or Hope Gardens. A friend of mine was woken up last night by some dude screaming and bleeding all over the sidewalk.

There are organizations and individuals who would have you believe that this is an unfair bill that targets the homeless, but that is simply not true. For those who truly need help in this city and seek it, it is readily available.

This is perhaps the more infuriating part of the whole situation. The blase disregard for the reality that help is not readily available is frustrating. I would encourage Skip and others living downtown to investigate a little further the resources that are "readily available" to the homeless in Nashville, rather than relying on the skimpy claims of the downtown partnership's glossy slicks.

I swear, after we fix the downtown panhandling "problem", we're gonna need an enormous civic undertaking to clean up after all the massive pantswetting flooding the area.

November 30, 2007

parks and crime: a modest proposal

Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 7:38 am

So, I'm watching all the (deserved) turmoil over the rape in the bicentennial mall and the lack of regular patrolling there. (See S-Town Mike for good coverage of this.)

I've also been observing the treatment of the Church Street Park and their efforts to remove the homeless uh birds. (See Kevin for more on this.), which has resulted in a marked increase in police presence, as well as an army of Downtown Partnership Segway-ed "safety ambassadors".

It seems the solution here is obvious. We need to get more homeless people hanging out in the bicentennial mall. Evidence suggests that this would have it staffed and patrolled in short order.

November 17, 2007

anti-panhandling ordinance

Filed under:, , , , , — cwage @ 12:37 pm

So, there's an anti-panhandling ordinance going before the metro council this next week. I'd encourage you to call your councilperson to let them know you disapprove. Why? Here's what the ordinance legislates:

A. It prohibits any VERBAL REQUEST for a donation within proximity to

1. Any bus stop;
2. Any sidewalk café;
3. Any area within twenty-five (25) feet (in any direction) of an automatic teller machine or entrance to a bank;
4. Any public or private school;
5. Within ten (10) feet of a point of entry to or exit from any building open to the public, including commercial establishments; or
6. On any private property where "No Solicitation" signs are posted.

B. It prohibits any form of panhandling in any place before dawn and after dusk.

C. It prohibits aggressive panhandling as defined in ordinance.

What are the problems with this? Well, first of all, a lot of what it legislates against are all already illegal. What is "aggressive panhandling"? According to the ordinance:

To approach or speak to a person in such a manner as would cause a reasonable person to believe that the person is being threatened with:
1. Imminent bodily injury; or
2. The commission of a criminal act upon the person or another person, or upon property in the person's immediate possession;
b. To persist in panhandling after the person solicited has given a negative response;
c. To block, either individually or as part of a group of persons, the passage of a solicited person;
d. To touch a solicited person without the person's consent;

Many of these are illegal already. This is a pervasive thread with the whole issue of "safety" regarding panhandling. When was the last time you were assaulted by someone panhandling? And if you were, how would that not already be illegal and something that would merit immediate police response? Answer: it wouldn't. This legislation has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with discrimination.

Then there's the fact that a lot of this ordinance may not pass constitutional muster. See Smith v. City of Fort Lauderdale, 177 F.3d 954, 956 (11th Cir. 1999); Loper v. New York City Police Dept., 999 F.2d 699, 704 (2d Cir. 1993); Gresham v. City of Indianapolis, 225 F.3d 899, 904 (7th Cir. 2000), Int'l Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness v. Lee, 505 U.S. 672, 678 (1992), etc. Speech on public sidewalks is one of the highest forms of protected speech.

I am going to ask some hard questions, now. Does this legislation help anything? I hear a lot of crowing about people feeling "threatened" by "aggressive panhandlers". Does this legislation make affronts to your safety "more illegal"? What's the value in that? Is this legislation going to magically make a police officer closer to help out if you are being assaulted? No. This anti-panhandling ordinance is a seriously misguided attempt to legislate away a problem that can't be fixed that way. And it does so by threatening to infringe on the liberties of everyone in the process.

November 9, 2007

the URA and the Park

Filed under:, , — cwage @ 8:24 pm

So, I have been distantly following the goings-on of the Urban Residents Association, the Downtown Partnership, and the saga of the Church Street Park. The Church Street Park is (well, was) full of homeless people, see. And this is bad for business, and blech who likes to look at poor people, right? So, the URA and the Downtown Partnership have been pretty vocal that we "do something" about "the problem". I've done my share of ranting about this in the past, so I won't recap all that. But, basically, the city was eventually cajoled into basically razing (sorry, remodeling) the park. Trees were razed, comfortable benches were ripped out, all in the interest of discouraging homeless people from hanging out there. So what's left is this rather ugly abomination. A lot of the people that hung out there are now hanging out underneath the Shelby Street bridge next to my apartment complex. (They didn't just disappear! Shocker!) However, even here, now, they've posted signs that now the park (benches) under the bridge closes at 11PM. That should take care of our homeless problem -- unless of course they continue existing and just go somewhere else. But I digress. Sorry, I'm trying to keep my sarcasm off. So, anyways. Today I get this e-mail from the URA:

We haven't scheduled any official programming yet for Church Street Park............

But we can still come out and play in the Park right away!

Come join us tomorrow, Saturday November 10 between 11:00AM and 3:00PM.

We have some games, bring your own if you want.

Dogs and kids welcome, Everyone is welcome!

I'll see you in the Park!

How cute, they're reclaiming the park, now that it's been rid of the filthy vermin. "Everyone is welcome!" Somehow, I don't think that's exactly true. So, of course, you know what I'm thinking. My inner provocateur is thinking it's time for a homeless field trip to the Church Street Park. Sadly meaningless provocation is rarely a good way to effect change. Still, the idea of an NHPP assemblage or something at the park tomorrow is very amusing to me right now.

August 21, 2007

the homeless vote

Filed under:, , , — cwage @ 2:06 am

When I went to last month's Urban Residents Association meeting (I missed this month's today), everyone got a good chuckle out of the news that people were actually "rounding up" (their terminology) homeless people to vote in the mayoral election.

"Why can they vote if they don't even have a place to live?", quipped one jokester.

Actually, chuckles, it's because the fucking constitution says they can, that's why. Courtesy of the National Coalition for the Homeless, here's a little mini-explainer:



Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 12:22 am

Things I've been meaning to blog about but haven't but I am now okay?:

  • I went to the NHPP-sponsored vigil and memorial for Tara Cole, who was murdered at riverfront park (her home) a year ago. It was sad. I thought it was especially poignant to be standing there at this vigil, with the NHPP campaigning for affordable housing, in the shadow of the $250,000 monstrosity across the river. On a related note, some interesting info from the NHPP:

    In the two years prior to Tara Cole's Killing there were several documented incidents of non-homeless individuals who self-confessed to trying to run over homeless people because they are "lazy and shiftless", and another who lit a homeless man on fire after leaving a bar. In the last several months there have been several accounts of young people attacking homeless people for fun. At the same time, the Downtown Partnership (business association) and Urban Residents Association (downtown residents) have worked closely with police that has led to a zero tolerance campaign arresting over 80 additional homeless people in the last 4 weeks.

    And then there's this:

    On the June 13th, 2007 the Metro Police launched the Quality of Life Initiative. It involves undercover officers downtown and along the West End corridor targeting individuals identified as panhandling (not illegal), trespassing, vagrancy, public intoxication and other activities typical of low-income individuals and homeless people struggling to survive as well as many non-homeless Titans fans J. Data shows that officers have arrested 91 unique homeless persons 113 times while working the initiative through Friday, Aug. 3. In their history in Davidson County, these 91 individuals have been arrested 4,397 times on 6,860 charges, and spent a total of 21,339 days in jail since March of 2000. Using a jail cost estimate of $55/day, this adds up to $1.2 million (which is only the Sheriff's portion of the expense). When reviewing the 4,397 arrests, 2,117 resulted in a conviction.

  • I could listen to Say Something by James literally over and over. Until the MP3 wears out. Which can happen, you know.
  • I am going up to North Carolina in September for a friend's wedding (to which I was invited partially to take pictures in exchange for free food, booze, and bridesmaids). I am hoping to extend it into a week or so of vacation and/or working remotely. I am going to drive the Miata and meander through the mountains, and wind up at Aaron's, and the BEACH.
  • I got a cheap RF remote for my camera, but I haven't been able to do anything good with it. It's a little hazy around here lately for star trails. It was only $20 on ebay, though. Let's hear it for cut-rate Chinese knock-off electronics! I think my building manager thinks I'm a drug dealer, though, because I keep getting discreet packages from Hong Kong.

May 31, 2007

Nashville Homeless Mayoral Candidate Forum

Filed under:, , , , , , , — cwage @ 10:25 am

The NHPP held a forum on the homeless with the Nashville mayoral candidates this week. They all agreed to do the NHPP's "urban plunge" by August 2nd. In addition, there was a survey, the results of which are below:


January 31, 2007

purcell and the homeless

Filed under:, , , , — cwage @ 12:40 pm

The Nashville Homeless Power Project is happy with Mayor Purcell. At today's Housing Summit, the Mayor largely addressed "affordable housing", but he also addressed the concerns of the homeless by commiting to $600,000 in funds for 50 housing units as part of the Mayor's Commission to End Chronic Homelessness. He also said this was not the end and that continuing funds would be made available as budgetary review proceeds.

From the NHPP's press release:

This commitment is as a result of a request that the Chair of the Commission, Vice Mayor Gentry, made to the Metro Social Services Commission in December 2006.

The Nashville Homeless Power Project became even more hopeful as the Mayor turned and addressed the 25 homeless individuals who attended the Mayor's Summit and said that the $600,000 was not the end. That he was aware of our proposal and that he was still at the table to look at additional funds in the capitol budget.

Clemmie Greenlee, an organizer for the Nashville Homeless Power Project and a Commissioner of the Mayor's Commission shares: "We are ready to walk along side the Mayor. We could feel his spirit and his willingness and are confident that he will help us find a way to create at least 200 units
before he leaves office.

January 20, 2007

move along

Filed under:, — cwage @ 1:55 am

Keeping Warm

Not long after I took this shot, a cop came by and stopped next to them and told them to move along. Er, well, by "told", I mean that he sounded his siren. He didn't actually "tell" them, per se. He used his siren. He sounded it. And then sounded it again. and again. See, he couldn't actually be bothered to get out of his car -- it's awfully cold out, see. But they had to move along. So he sounded his siren, until they woke up, rubbed their eyes, and left. Where did they go? I don't know -- probably somewhere colder.

The cop never got out of his car.

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