Portraits of Philadelphia’s homeless people: It’s about looking into someone’s eye

    When Christopher Brown first became interested in photographing people who lived on the streets of Philadelphia, he wrote down a list.

    When Christopher Brown first became interested in photographing people who lived on the streets of Philadelphia, he wrote down a list of images he wanted to capture: relationships, loneliness, shelters, addiction, technology, pets, and keepsakes. But after having a few conversations over a cigarette or two with the people he met, Brown quickly realized he needed to scrap the list.

    Getting to know the people he met through simple conversations and the connections he would make became far more important than the photograph.

    “It’s about looking into someone’s eye and being able to capture that moment where they’ve opened themselves up because you’ve opened yourself up to them and shown true love, compassion, or pity in that moment,” said Brown. “You let them have a bit of you and you have a bit of them for that split second.”

    In Pennsylvania, the homeless population has increased three of the past four years  — including those who live outside and are unsheltered. Philadelphia ranked as eighth highest among major cities for family members who are homeless according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

    From the street to the studio

    As a photography student at The Art Institute of Philadelphia, Brown began taking images outside on the street, but soon invited some of the people he met inside to the school’s studio to become models. Part of the process was to learn about studio lighting and to get more personal.

    Taking the subject out of the street environment allowed them to become more than the person who sits on certain street corner, panhandles under an overpass, or hands out newspapers, explained Brown.

    The result was a series of portraits that look almost like oil paintings — showing details and imperfections like brush strokes.

    “I just felt at the end of it, emotional with them. I felt like I had known these people far longer than 40-50 minutes.”

    In the spring, Brown partnered with videographer Scott Parry to camp out with a group of people living underneath a bridge near the Schylkill River.  

    It was a cold blustery night, recalled Brown, where he didn’t pick up his camera for five hours.

    “I could have taken pictures, went away and they would have never seen me again. But I wanted to capture them being relaxed without a shell-shocked face,” said Brown. “It’s about the experience of meeting a person and hearing a story or sharing a story.”

    Footage from the night spent at the camp and the studio shoots can be seen in a short documentary.  

    Brown’s photographs of homeless people in Philadelphia can be seen in the book “Perseverance with Dignity.” All profits and proceeds from book sales go to the Bethesda Project, an organization that provides shelter, housing, and programs to people who are chronically homeless.

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