IIn the 1970s, I lived in SoHo, New York, which is not far from Bowery, but the two districts were like separate universes. SoHo was full of artists and creative types, but Bowery was known as the place where you ended up when you were at the bottom of the barrel. There were many flop houses and a lot of alcoholism and drug use. It was the darkest place in New York City in a long time.
Bowery Mission is a Christian rescue center for the homeless. Only men are allowed to stay overnight, but it feeds everyone. I used to go there around Thanksgiving and Christmas time 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, the interest disappeared. It’s not because the problem disappeared – on the contrary – but for some reason we did not talk about it anymore. It bothered me, so I thought to myself: what can I do? I figured as a photographer that I could create something that brings a little attention to these people and their situation. So I contacted the Bowery Mission and asked to make some portraits of the regular users of the center.
They gave me a room upstairs to work in. If you want a meal at Bowery Mission, you must also attend a worship service. So I waited until people had eaten and listened to the sermon and were relaxed and relaxed, and only then would I turn to ask 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 much – had I not known they were homeless – I would never have guessed their circumstances. My plan was to focus on faces and eyes because we so often walk down the street and see someone and we do not feel like looking at them or getting involved. Not to sound banal, but I was interested in trying to get into their story and their soul.
I was interested when couples arrived at the center as it was clear that they lived together on the street. These guys were such a great couple. When they smiled, I was like: this is the picture. I shot with something called an Octabank, which is like a giant umbrella that is about six feet wide and means the whole face is beautifully lit. It is used more often in fashion photography. Many pictures of homeless people are really sad. I did not want to. There is a certain joy in these people and that was what I wanted to show. Therefore, I turned it on as I did.
And from the poses, I wanted the depth of the feeling of them as people, but I also wanted to get over the fact that you would hang out with some of these people – they’re cool! I deliberately choose not to publish their names for the sake of their privacy and because I wanted to focus on the faces and humanity of the people currently captured in the project.
With these two, it was clear that they had each other, and that was pretty much it in their lives at the time. I wanted to give a sense of how their relationship felt. I tried to get them to center in front of the camera and just be who they were and not try to do anything special or performative.
Many of us are just a few steps away from something like homelessness. I felt helpless over a situation in my city that I thought was awful and a state of life I saw every day when I walked out my door. The worse the situation gets, the more it normalizes and your sense of helplessness eventually becomes numb.
I exhibited the work at the mission headquarters in Midtown. We blasted eight or nine of the pictures to about 6 feet times 4 feet. You look at those huge eyes and faces, and the impact of having all those pictures in one room was pretty overwhelming. I think they felt really special with all the lights and cameras and the attention on them when they did this project. I hope that feeling lasted for a while.
Bill Bernstein’s CV
Born: New York City, 1950.
Impacts: Avedon, William Klein, Arbus, Leibovitz.
Highlight: “Documenting Paul McCartney on the Road 1989-2005.”
Low point: “Has not happened yet.”
Top tip: “Have something to say before you start shooting.”