As the unremitting heat of this past summer is about to remit, I’m seeing more and more of Austin’s street people out and about. During this endless and hellacious summer, I had noted their absence downtown and hoped that they were staying cool at shelters or the City of Austin’s cooling stations.
Even while I pondered their well-being, I realized that – with the exception of Leslie – we Austinites recognize very few of these denizens of our streets, referencing them as part of a collective category of “homeless” and/or “street people.” The individual members remain largely faceless and certainly nameless.
In earlier days, particularly in the 1960s and -70s, many of us recognized Bicycle Annie, also called the Indian Princess, wearing braided hair and pieces of native American clothing. Her trademark, the basketed bicycle she rode along the streets, was the reason for her other sobriquet, Bicycle Annie.
As I’ve noted in earlier postings, many of us didn’t know her real name was Zelma O’Riley and that she authored a publication called Up and Down the Drag in the 1940s while she was a University of Texas student. We also didn’t know that she believed herself to be presidential material, writing in 1947, “It will take a woman to save America.” Her principal campaign plank was “preparedness” and the slogan she published read “Vote for Zelma O’Riley for First Woman President of the United States – she is Irish, she is Indian and she will care for you.”
While these are the barest outlines of a life, I’d like to think that knowing about Zelma and her history gives us some insight regarding our shared humanity with the others who roam our streets. It was with great interest, therefore, that I read the article in September’s Texas Observer about the new book, “Hard Ground,” a collection of photographs of Austin’s homeless. This is the work of photographer Michael O’Brien, who at an unsettled crossroads in his own professional life, started going to the Mission: Possible! Community Center in East Austin every Tuesday for three years to photograph and document the stories of individuals who live on Austin’s streets and various shelters.
What struck me the most was his notion of giving something to each person he photographed, specifically a copy of the photo. In common parlance, of course, we say that a photo is “taken” and generally, nothing is exchanged for this taking. But in this case, O’Brien used a type of Polaroid film that permitted him to give his subjects a print, while he maintained the negative. This reminded me of the old Native American belief that a person’s soul was stolen in the photographic process. Perhaps the gift of the print could symbolize the return of that soul.
But, more essentially, O’Brien describes the print as a testament to a life. Consider how we take photographic documentation of our own lives completely for granted. While we can find our faces in countless photographs from phones, digital cameras, scrapbooks, and social media sites, it is surely a rarity for most of the wandering homeless to have visual evidence that testifies to their presence on this earth.
Pairing these photographs with poetry by musician Tom Waits, O’Brien has produced a very special book of diminished lives that he has accorded the respect and dignity that all of us, as human beings, deserve. For O’Brien, personally, his achievement is equally meaningful. He tells the story of how he had been floundering, often unemployed due to changes that had rocked the photojournalism industry, but over the three years he photographed the homeless, he regained his balance and place, rediscovering. As you contemplate the images on the pages of this book, you become aware that O’Brien – in dignifying the lives of the pictured individuals – has also dignified his own.