Walking the streets in Detroit and I meet these two homeless guys named Eric and Jeff. When I took this picture I didn’t see that the looked like Saddam Hussein and Sir Ian McKellen but now that I have seen it…I can’t un-see it. I love to roam the cities of Detroit and shoot street portraits. I don’t consider myself a street photographer but more of a portrait shooter. Taking random street pictures isn’t my thing so I always make sure to sit and talk with my subject. Jeff and Eric had plenty of laugh and great stories. When I took this picture this was and probably still is my most favorite street portrait I have ever taken.
It was a Sunday afternoon and I was walking downtown near Woodward and Congress and sitting against the brick wall is where we first met. I love to shoot street portraits and when I saw Eric and Jeff they caught my attention. Or I should say I caught their attention which is easy as I stand 6’8″ and I am nearly impossible to miss.
We exchanged some pleasantries and some small conversation and I cant really remember what we talked about during this time. My camera was still in the bag but I knew I was not walking away without their picture. I forgot about taking the picture and spent time talking and getting to know Eric and Jeff.
They were loud and very drunk and drinking from a pint sized bottle of some cheap whiskey. Now I was sitting on the steps and the conversation was growing and we covered a lot of topics. They told me they were father and son and have been surviving on the streets for some time. Every time I had a question they would both answer and talk on top of each other and then get louder and louder to command attention. The whiskey was flowing and they kept offering and I kept declining.
I felt it was time to use my camera and try and take some portraits. I say try because they were loud and not really wanting to sit tight for me. When they saw the camera they didn’t even care. I was expecting them to ask for some money for the picture but they had another idea…a shot of whiskey.
I was up for the challenge and took my shot of that cheap whiskey and then went to work making this portrait. I asked Eric to lean in and his hand came up naturally. I had them move and slightly adjust for me but this is what I was hoping for. This was the first time they were quiet! I had their attention and I made sure I captured it.
I shot about a dozen images and felt comfortable. I knew I had something special. I imported into Adobe Lightroom and looked at the twelve pictures and this one frame is where it all came together.
For some time after taking this picture I would see Eric from time to time and I photographed him again. The next time we met he was alone and quiet. I remember the last time I saw Eric it was cold and he was feeling the pain of cold days and nights. I never saw Jeff again which is the normal story when it comes to homeless people.
Every street portrait I have ever shot makes me think about the decisions we make in life and where it can lead us. I have been down some tough roads and faced many road blocks but I have never felt the desire to run like this.
I hear many stories from the homeless and it does not matter the reasons if it’s drug and alcohol, mental illness or military veterans. Their cause might be different but the effect isn’t. Sadly most of them don’t want help to get off of the streets, rather they want food or money.
I often struggle with my thoughts on how to help? I have volunteered at shelters, food lines and always carry extra hats and gloves in my trunk to give away. I have found homeless people passed out and pulled them into my car and taken them to the hospital. The bigger question for me is why do I do this? Maybe one day I will have that answer.
I like to think that taking the time to hear a story from them and treat them like a human being is super important. I am possibly the only person in a day that treated them with respect and didn’t dis-respect them. I know my goal when I shoot these pictures is to try and document what I see and felt in the time our paths crossed.