“Looking Into Light,” 50 black-and-white photographs documenting the lives of homeless families across America, will open Monday (March 5) at City Hall. The Seattle University Project on Family Homelessness, the exhibition sponsor, has added 20 photographs of homeless Washington state families by Seattle photojournalist Dan Lamont.
The national collection is a portion of 20,000 photographs archived at The National Center on Family Homelessness (The National Center). Since its debut four months ago the exhibition has appeared in just two other cities, Washington, D.C. and Boston. Its nationwide tour will extend two more years.
The images in this exhibition are beautiful, though not in the same way as works by socially concerned photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The austere stillness of Evans’s and Lange’s portraits can awaken a helpless sense of fate and class, of unavoidable destinies geographically distant from the viewer, of trapped lives hard to change.
But visitors to “Looking Into Light” enter the world of each picture almost as if we were familiar neighbors drifting into a space down the street on a scruffy Saturday morning. Despite their hardships the people are alive and natural in their next-door ordinariness, and the children, even when solemn, remind us that a future opens out (see slideshow at right).
Entering into the situations of these families emotionally as well as visually, we feel impulses to share and help. So the Seattle exhibit will also feature information from Building Changes, a Washington nonprofit with a mission of ending homelessness and with strong connections to volunteer organizations throughout the state.
Photojournalist Dan Lamont took the pictures in his part of the exhibit with the support of a journalism fellowship funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and awarded by Seattle U’s family homelessness project in 2010. Lamont, a Washington native who has been covering social justice issues for more than 30 years, said his focus was “beyond the urban corridor.” He interviewed and photographed six families living in Yakima, Colville, and Omak.
“The people I met were standup people,” said Lamont. “They may have had multigenerational issues that knocked them down, but what they needed was a boost, not to be carried the whole way. They’re so much more resourceful than the average middle-class American. I have tons of respect for them — what they’ve had to endure and how tough they are: sensitive, articulate, smart people who stumbled but who aren’t chronic stumblers.”
One of his subjects in Yakima was a woman whose husband, owner of a thriving kitchen counter business, secretly gambled away the business and their house, leaving her suddenly homeless with their two children. A wrenching moment for her was seeing her most prized possession, the family piano, hauled down the street in a truck, said Lamont.
Another family fell apart while the father, a U.S. Marine, was serving in Iraq. Then there was Justine, sexually abused by her father after her mother died and then left homeless at 18 when her mentally ill aunt threw her out because foster care payments would be ending. Justine lived in a car with her boyfriend, got pregnant, had a baby, and ended up alone again.
But “these people endure,” said Lamont. Justine now has an apartment and a job to support her little family. The Marine and his children have a home. The Yakima mom is housed and in school.
A photographer who wished to remain anonymous (and who died in 2010) created the 50 works in the national part of the exhibition, said Dr. Ellen Bassuk, who co-founded a fund that became The National Center on Family Homelessness in 1988 together with David Jordan, then editor-in-chief of Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
Jordan grew up in poverty with a single mother, Bassuk said. When his lifelong desire to “give back to poor kids” and his interest in homes met the first wave of American homelessness in the 1980s, he assigned one of his magazine's best photographers to take pictures of homeless families around the country — a five-year project, she said. Some of the photos appeared in Better Homes, and before his death the photographer bequeathed the entire collection of negatives to The National Center, where Bassuk is CEO.
The exhibition shows “how timeless the issue is,” she said. “Homelessness doesn't look any different now than it did then.”
Leaders of the Project on Family Homelessness at Seattle U and of The National Center hope the exhibition will inspire people to take effective action on behalf of others lacking a home to call their own. Lamont reflected somewhat wryly on the task: “I walk away from [publishing my work] and I think, the challenge for a journalist is people believe you’re going to solve the problem.” Inertia persists, he said.
But knowledge can turn inertia into action. Solutions to the problem of homelessness exist, and good information will be found in the section of the exhibition devoted to Building Changes.
If you go: “Looking Into Light,” March 5-April 27, Monday-Friday, 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave., in the lobby on the 5th floor and the Ann Focke Gallery on L-2. Free and open to the public.