IIn the 1970s, I lived in SoHo in New York, which is not far from the Bowery, but the two neighborhoods were like separate universes. SoHo was teeming with artists and creative types, but the Bowery was known as the place you would end up when you were in the bottom of the barrel. There was a lot of flophouses and a lot of alcoholism and drug abuse. It was the darkest place in New York for a long time.
The Bowery Mission is a Christian relief center for the homeless. Only men are allowed to stay overnight but it feeds everyone. I used to go there on Thanksgiving and Christmas to help serve dinner. The face to face contact and interactions I had with people meant that I always felt a real connection with them, and it also made me grateful for what I had in my own life.
In the 1990s, there was a lot of focus on homelessness in New York City and money and public attention was spent trying to end it. And then, in the early 2000s, interest waned. It wasn’t that the problem was gone – on the contrary – but for some reason we weren’t talking about it anymore. It bothered me, so I thought to myself: what can I do? I thought to myself that as a photographer I could create something that draws some attention to these people and their situation. So I contacted the Bowery Mission and asked to take portraits of regular users of the center.
They gave me a room upstairs to work. If you want to have a meal at the Bowery Mission, you must also attend a church service. So I would wait until the people had eaten and listened to the sermon and were relaxed and relaxed and only then would I approach to ask them if I could photograph them. I had to be very careful because in many ways these people are very fragile, but I was also surprised at how – if I hadn’t known they were homeless – I would never have guessed. their situation. My plan was to focus on the faces and the eyes because we walk down the street so often and see someone and we don’t really want to look at them or engage. Not to sound out of date, but I was interested in trying to get into their story and their soul.
I was interested when the couples arrived at the center because it was clear that they lived together on the street. These guys made such a great pair. When they smiled, I said to myself: this is the photo. I shot with something called an Octabank, which is like a gigantic umbrella about six feet wide and means the whole face is beautifully lit. It is more often used in fashion photography. Lots of pictures of homeless people are really sad. I didn’t want to do this. There is joy in these people, and that’s what I wanted to show. That’s why I turned it on like I did.
And from the poses, I wanted to get the depth of how they felt as humans, but I also wanted to forget about the fact that you were hanging out with some of these people – they’re cool! I deliberately chose not to publish their names out of consideration for their privacy and because I wanted to focus on the faces and humanity of the people captured at the time of the project.
With these two, it was clear that they were together, and that was pretty much everything in their life at the time. I wanted to give an idea of ââwhat their relationship was like. I was trying to get them to focus in front of the camera, to just be who they were and not to try anything special or performative.
Many of us are just steps away from something like homelessness. I felt helpless in the face of a situation in my city that I found terrible and a condition of life that I saw every day when I walked out my door. The more the situation worsens, the more it normalizes and your feeling of helplessness ends up numbing.
I exhibited the work at Mission headquarters in Midtown. We detonated eight or nine of the photographs about 6 feet by 4 feet. You look at those huge eyes and faces and the impact of having all these photos in one room was pretty overwhelming. I think they felt really special to have all the lights and cameras and the attention on them on this project. Hope this feeling lasted for a while.
Bill Bernstein CV
Not: New York, 1950.
Influences: Avedon, William Klein, Arbus, Leibovitz.
High point: âDocumenting Paul McCartney on the 1989-2005 road.
Low point: âIt hasn’t happened yet. “
Superior council: “Have something to say before you start filming.”