Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: 'Behind Their Eyes' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

18 November 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 214th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Behind Their Eyes.

Associated Press photographer Jae Hong spent three months documenting the homeless crisis in Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. In this video, he talks about the people he met on the streets and how he documented their plight.

His assignment was to photograph them as if we were making eye contact with them. He was familiar with the problem. As a resident of Los Angeles, he would drive to Skid row "all the time," he says. But you never get used to it, he adds.

As he speaks to you, the camera takes you there, both in video and in Hong's stills.

You are drawn to the foreground subject in each image but there is much to observe in the background.

Homelessness may have always been with us but it has taken on a new dimension in this century. With tens of thousands homeless in our more hospitable cities, it has become a shadow community. Look carefully at this video and you'll see sidewalks settled with tents.

But Hong's work isn't about the homeless issue. It's about people who are homeless.

On our own trips around San Francisco, we have been surprised at the growth of these communities. In addition to the tents, which themselves are handouts from private organizations, there are jerry-built structures along some streets in industrial areas which are otherwise deserted at the end of the business day.

Hong admits he doesn't know what the solution to homelessness is. "We just have to be compassionate," he says.

But Hong's work isn't about the homeless issue. It's about people who are homeless.

Hong tells us he used a tilt-and-shift lens to make his portraits so he could focus just on their eyes. Focusing on the near eye is a timeless technique of the portrait photographer but Hong pushes this approach a little further.

The eyes in his tightly cropped portraits are in sharp focus while everything else is thrown gradually out of focus. The effect draws you in closer than you would be facing someone normally.

Hong says that of the more than 100 homeless people he approached for this series, most said no when he asked if they would let him take their picture. Others wanted money, which he didn't have. So he walked away.

The portraits we do see, he adds, are of those who didn't mind being photographed and telling their stories.

The portraits sequence, which starts midway through the clip, begins with Moi Williams, 59, who we hear as Hong interviews him. "I had a job before and thought I'd get another one. It's just been complicated," Williams tells him.

And it ends with James Harris, 54, who we see with half of his face painted. He had a bottle of Hawaiian Punch in his backpack, Hong remembers. That was his dinner. The next day when Hong ran into him he saw that what was left of his Hawaiian Punch was going to be his breakfast. "He didn't know where to get help and he didn't know he needed help," Hong says.

Harris is the one that stays in Hong's heart, he tells us.

We have, as a society, an increasing aversion to helping people, an endless task itself. And many of us personally have an aversion to asking for help, holding tightly to what dignity we still possess.

That's a lethal combination -- both for individuals and society in general.

BackBack to Photo Corners