“You should not learn your lines, you should not hit your mark, and you should never follow your light. Find your light — that’s my opinion.” — Joaquin Phoenix (actor)
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.” — Henry Chinaski (barfly)
We’ve seen these men. We’ve seen them as we pass through dilapidated downtowns, probably within a few blocks of the bus station where transients congregate; hard lean men, cigarettes hanging from their lips, maybe a half pint in their back pocket. We’ve seen them under a bridge or pushing a shopping cart filled with meagre possessions through the trash-strewn vacant lots that pollute the urban landscape. The sight of these men makes us feel discomforted, nervous, maybe a little scared. If we have a camera, we are probably tempted to use it on them, if we think we can get away with it.
What do we find so attractive about these men that we want to capture their image? Photographers are overwhelmingly middle class, probably upper-middle class, if not trust-funded children of great wealth; as are most gallery owners, museum curators, publishers, editors and audience for high-end photography. Yet somehow we are hopelessly attracted to images of these gritty “others,” especially when they are framed by staggering poverty. The result is far too many photos that say, in essence, “Look ma, poor people!” Or black people, foreign people, disabled people, mentally disturbed people, and so on. The rough is more pleasing than the smooth. The face with the stubble more attractive than the clean-shaven. Dark skin more pleasing than the light. The unruly hair more interesting than the well-coifed. We want images of people with some kind, any kind, of problem or difference that sets them apart from, if not below, our comfortable middle class existence.
We tell ourselves and anyone else who will listen that we photograph these men to draw attention to their plight, to help them though the publicity the photos provide. Suffice it to say, I’m skeptical, both about the purity of the motive and the likelihood that any help will be forthcoming. Some no doubt see these kinds of images as a career opportunity, a chance for self-aggrandizement. For most, taking these kinds of photos will end up, at best, as a learning experience. Of course there’s rarely a single motive for our actions. But whatever the differing motives for photographing these men; whatever the differing opinions about how they have become what they have become; whatever any of us may think should be done about it; just about all of us share one thing in common: These men should not be as they are. We think something is wrong.
At this late stage in photo history, it’s nearly impossible to make photographs of men like these, or have any kind of photographic vision about them that has not been done before. To shoot the subjects that everyone wants to shoot, the ones that have been done the most, it becomes ever more difficult to produce original work. See what I mean. And it’s not just that the photos we are likely to make of these men are clichés. Much more often than not, the photographers who take them become clichés. Go out and take a picture of a sleeping bum and tell me you don’t feel at least a little embarrassed.
Given all that, when I saw the first photo in Virgil DiBiase’s series “1 Man,” my first thought was “oh no, more pictures of bums.”
But as the slideshow progressed, I couldn’t help noticing the eyes of these men.
Against expectations, the photos did not seem to show men who had lost everything. They were not about men who had become what they had become. They were about men being who they Are. They showed men who had found something. Men who had found freedom. You could see it in their eyes.
And I realized those eyes said something about the photographer as well. These men were not objects of pity. They were objects of esteem. They had found freedom. The photographer was seeking it. Again, you could see it in their eyes.
Their freedom is much more than simple freedom from dull jobs, asshole bosses and office politics; of soul deadening social obligations and the bills that everyone else finds stuffed in their mailboxes every day. These men seem free of regrets, guilt or any kind of embarrassment about their situation, unlike most the rest of us who are, at best, free only to the extent we can choose our own prison. These men, rather than choose prison, choose the open sky. That their faces mirror the trashed out dwellings of the urban landscape through which they roam tells us the price of that freedom was steep. Their eyes tell us it was worth it.
I know Virgil would like me to end this right there. “1 Man” is about the photographs, not about the photographer. But since I’ve opined at such length about other photographers’ motives, I feel I should tell you something about his.
He didn’t set out to make a photo project of homeless men or drifters, much less to photograph any nebulous abstraction such as freedom in the eyes of “others.” He sought a friend of his who had become mentally ill and disappeared. He made many trips looking for that friend and over many years got to know the seedy downtowns, vacant lots, bridges and underpasses throughout the urban American landscape. Sometimes he found his friend, sometimes he didn’t. Along the way he met a lot of similar people, saw something special in them, and photographed what he saw. That’s the story behind the story. Those are the facts.
Those facts are interesting, but only as a footnote or sidebar. I think they partially explain the success of the work. Only by having no interest in photographing street people, of actually being hostile to the general idea, could he so successfully photograph street people. But that is not central to the story, or even necessary. It’s the realities and fictions we see in these men’s faces and in their eyes that are the tale. That, and how we see, or fail to see, something about ourselves in them. Facts have nothing to do with it.
— Michael Webster
“How many hypocrites are there in America? How many trembling lambs, fearful of discovery? What authority have we set up over ourselves that we are not as we Are?” — Allen Ginsberg (poet)
“What goes through my heart and soul as I meet these guys is my longing for the freedom they seem to have. On the surface we all are so quick to judge. Wouldn’t it be nice to be the rich guy with a house and car. Or how sad to be homeless with no shoes. Neither is true. So we are all on this personal journey to find freedom. Truth is, all we need to do is choose freedom. Anywhere. Anytime.” — Virgil DiBiase (photographer)
Virgil DiBiase is a photographer living in northwest Indiana.
Virgil DiBiase was a student in the Miami 2012 workshop. Some of these photographs were taken during the workshop.