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 on the downtown streets and hoped that they were staying cool at shelters or the City of Austin’s cooling stations.
Even while I noticed their absenced and pondered their situation, I realized that – with the exception of Leslie – we Austinites recognize very few of the denizens of our streets, making reference to them in the collective categories of “homeless” and “street people.” The individual members remain largely faceless and certainly nameless.
In earlier days, particularly in the 60s and 70s, most 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.
Even so, as I’ve noted in earlier blogs, many of us didn’t know her real name was Zelma O’Riley and that she started a publication in 1941 while she was in college at the University of Texas called Up and Down the Drag. We did not know that she believed herself to be presidential material, writing in 1947, “It will take a woman to save America.” As she explained, her principal campaign plank was preparedness and she ran an advertisement that 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 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 individuals among 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 to photograph and document the stories of the Austin homeless over a period of three years.
What struck me the most is his idea that when a photo is “taken” the subject, as common parlance suggests, gets nothing in return. Accordingly, he used a Polaroid film that permitted him to give his subjects a print, while he maintained the negative. I wonder whether he was honoring the old Native American suspicion that a person’s soul was stolen in the photographic process, and his gift of the picture returned whatever soul might be lost to its true owner.
O’Brien, on the other hand, aptly describes the print as a testament to a life. This reminded me of how we take documentation of our own lives completely for granted. While we can find our faces in countless photographs from phones, digital cameras, and social media sites, it must be a rarity for any 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, finding that this project gave him back his anchor. Thumbing though the pages of this book, you become aware that O’Brien – in dignifying the life of the pictured individuals – has also dignified his own.