Through My Lens is dedicated to the memory of Robert “Slim” Perry.
“I want people to hear my story, hear my cry, but you’re not going to see my tears. I’m homeless and an ex-convict, but at the same time, in all due respect, society has to reach out and help us. I need a job and housing. Don’t just ignore us. We are looked at like dirt, but we are somebody.”
– Robert “Slim” Perry (June 5, 1957 – November 24, 2014)
These photographs were taken by members of the unhoused and food-insecure community that gather at The Bowery Mission. They were asked to take photos of that which they hoped others might see.
“This reminds me of my mom – the lady leg and the big splotch over the rest of her. She left me when I was two.” – Robert Perry “That dog always runs up on me. But she’s nice. Her name is Pam.” – Robert Perry
While serving as the Director of Chapel and Compassionate Care at The Bowery Mission, I invited friends from the community where I serve to participate in this project. Each person was given a disposable camera and encouraged to carry the camera until they shot the entire roll of film. This person was transformed into a documentary photographer, an artist, and however they chose to identify.
“I’ve been homeless on and off since I was twelve. I never really had a bed. This bed looks beautiful… like a dream. I usually sleep in The Bowery Mission or on a park bench or I take the A train to Far Rockaway and back three times and that gets me some sleep. I’m 57 now.” – Robert Perry “The one cat standing usually doesn’t wear shoes. He’s got nice sneakers here though. This is in front of the old Salvation Army building.” – Cleveland Gibbs
When the cameras were returned, the film was developed into a digital format. The photographer and I then sat and each person walked me through their photographs. The photographer told me the story of each photo and I wrote down their words.
“This is a shelter in Brooklyn where I’ve been for twenty days. This is how the shelter is set up. You get a bed and locker. I was on the street for four years, except for the winters when I slept in The Bowery Mission. I decided to go into the shelter because I wasn’t getting any sleep. If you don’t sleep your mind escapes you.” – Cleveland Gibbs “This is where the people from the Bowery lounge at all the time.” – Cleveland Gibbs “I like their music. They come to the Bowery on Tuesdays.” – Cleveland Gibbs “This is a guy I know. It was gonna rain that day. He wanted me to take a better picture of him for the face that he was putting on his socks. I just wanted to catch a natural shot.” – Cleveland Gibbs. “People look at me and think I’m weird because I’m homeless. Some homeless people think I’m weird too. So this picture is me turning it back. Look at yourself.” – Cleveland Gibbs
The photos are deeply personal; for example, documenting the challenges of finding a place to sleep when you don’t have a home, exploring how childhood trauma lingers in one’s psyche even at the age of fifty-seven, and telling stories of deep friendships of caring and compassion.
“This is some brass I found by the post office. They are locks marked U.S. mail. The guy who buys scrap from me at first didn’t want to buy it. But I explained that the post office was renovating and I found it.” – Dennis Brown “I used to stay at BRC for a couple years when I was homeless. I’m now in housing. That’s where everyone hangs out because the park is also there, so I hang out there also.” – Laurie Nixon “The guys are standing, waiting to go in for service. It’s about lunchtime. I’ve been coming here since a year after 9/11.” – Dennis Brown “That’s where I park my cart for scrap. They let me park it there. This is all my scrap and belongings. My personal belongings are in the shopping cart. I hide it by the library sometimes so that I can move around easier. I can make from twenty dollars a day up to two hundred dollars on a really good day.” – Dennis Brown “This is some stainless steel. It’s how I earn some pennies – through scrap. I scrap at least three (sometimes five times a week).” – Dennis Brown
“This bus takes people to Atlantic City. You pay about twelve dollars for a round-trip ticket, but they give you a card with about seventeen dollars on it to gamble, but you can cash it out and make a few bucks. You get to sleep three hours each way and you can also sleep at the casino for a few hours. Some guys gamble and when they lose their money they return angry and tired because they stayed up all night. The casino bus is a way to get some sleep, a few bucks, and to get away from the city for a while.” – Frank M. Oquendo “This is the front of Criminal Court. The police were taking a person in. It’s hard to see him, but he’s behind the police car. Every time I see this building and these kinds of situations it is a reminder to stay out of trouble. I’ve never been in jail and I don’t want to go.” – Frank M. Oquendo “This is McAuley’s. They have three extended floors. Everyone in this picture are going there for dinner. The bus in the picture is actually a casino bus.” – Frank M. Oquendo “The med van helps me a lot. They give me diabetes medication and send me to doctor appointments.” – Frank M. Oquendo “This is from a park with a display of Puerto Rican history. There were four to five walls. These people give me hope and inspiration because they started out poor and made something.” – Frank M. Oquendo “This is a public restroom in the park. When it rains everyone, people from The Bowery Mission, McAuley’s, and the Chinese people who gamble in the park, all take shelter here. A lot of homeless people have been arrested for sleeping in this park. If you have a state ID and know how to talk to the police you don’t get locked up.” – Frank M. Oquendo “We call this ‘the hole.’ When we wait for the casino bus it keeps us out of the rain and wind. The guy is Nick. He’s Italian. He helped me to start riding the casino bus to Sands, which is a hard bus to get on. The white box is my seat.” – Frank M. Oquendo “These are two concierges who send me my clients. I host clients at exclusive clubs who hire me. The clients are from out of town, they are quite wealthy, and they want to go to clubs. The clients are like me except with a lot of money – they are arrogant. One time I was hosting an Asian woman from Germany. We were speaking in German and her friend arrived at the club. He was wearing shorts. She said to that man that he looked like he was homeless. I thought to myself that this woman doesn’t have a clue about homelessness.” – Irvin Andrew “This is my favorite bookstore – McNally-Jackson. It’s on Prince and Mulberry. I love to go there and read.” – Irvin Andrew “This is how I dress.” – Irvin Andrew “This is my station as the Maitre d’ at de Santos where I currently work. This is where guests see me when they enter. Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix used to live here. And Bob Dylan did his second concert here.” – Irvin Andrew
Through this project the photographer is an active participant, an artist, documentarian, they become both object and subject as they decide. Through this project we attempt to subvert the invisibilization and objectification of the underclass, outcast, oppressed, homeless, hungry, hurting, poor but often hope-filled by allowing others to view life “through my lens.” – Jason Storbakken, Advent 2014
“This reminds me of Jesus and the boat. When he walked on water and all that. This makes me also think of how Jesus fed all the people and made sure everyone had enough fish and food to eat.” – Laurie Nixon “I know Mikey for over twenty years, before he was blind. He used to sell loosies and joints. I was fifteen when we met. He was about forty. He’s been around the Bowery since the ‘80s. When I was on the street he would let me stay at his house sometimes and shower and get something to eat.” – Laurie Nixon “My mom told me that when she was pregnant with me she went to Arim Racetrack in Trinidad and maybe me in my mother’s womb hearing the clip clop of the horses running is the reason why I like horseracing today.” – Sean Collins “I was coming from HRA to see what was going on with my food stamps. I like Barclays architecture. There were many kids in cap and gown because they were graduating.” – Sean Collins “This was on the subway platform. There is a reggae band in the back singing “Three Little Birds.” The little girl is dancing with her daddy. Watching this interaction gave me a lot of joy.” – Sean Collins “I like to play the poloponies – that’s an old Honeymooner’s joke. They just did the artwork. There was a big party after all the art was installed. There’s a bar upstairs called Long Shots. They have simulcasts with races from California, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and all over North America.” – Sean Collins The photographers
Robert “Slim” Perry talk about Through My Lens.
“I’ve always liked photography since my father gave me a camera on my 13th birthday. My hope with these photos is to bring joy to others through images of people dancing, graduating and enjoying sport such as horse racing. My dad passed away last year and my photos are a tribute to him.” – Sean Collins “I believe that it’s the capitalistic system that causes so much homelessness. The price is too high. The government isn’t true democracy. They don’t practice what they preach. The big man, the top guy, gets all the goodies, three houses and five cars, and all that is left for everyone else is to scramble to pay rent.” – Dennis “Trini” Brown “A lot of people judge a book by its cover. People think that the homeless are mentally ill or addicts and that they all fall in to one category. Some lose a job and others have family members who are doing drugs and stuff and they don’t want to deal with that. Many homeless people are very intelligent and want to get back to society. I’ve met a lot of people who are educated but can’t even get a job as a doorman.” – Frank M. Oquendo “I work as a personal concierge and maitre’ d. People have a total misconception of what it is to be homeless. Take for instance my job description. One would never know that a homeless person has worked in some of the best restaurants in NYC. I’ve also worked as an events consultant/host at many nightclubs in New York, Miami, L.A., and Las Vegas.” – Irvin Andrew “When I took these pictures it’s not because I’m a professional photographer but because I have a vision and that I have something to say from my life. I’m not perfect. I’m a person who’s trying to get out from where I’m at right now. Taking pictures helped me realize that I have a path to take. These pictures eased me from the pain, suffering that I’m going through right now and helped me express myself in a new way.” – Jesse “Indio” Bryan “I hope people see in these photos the different activities in my life. I’m from Harlem and I’ve been on the Bowery since I was 15. I’m 46.” – Laurie Nixon
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The photographers at Union Theological Seminary.