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Pete Pin

The Ave

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“My whole take on the Telegraph life is, basically, my life is very simple: I sit around all day and I spare change for hours for alcohol which I use to compensate for the fact that I live on the streets everyday.” Coconut, then a 16 year-old street kid (transcribed from an audio interview).

Since the late 1960’s, Telegraph Ave – a four block commercial strip on the south side of the University of California in Berkeley, CA – has been a magnet for street kids, travelers, and runaways like Coconut. Arriving for several days, weeks, or sometimes years, the young transients sleep on the street, in various shelters scattered across the city, or secretly in the numerous squat houses scattered on the south side of Berkeley. They come for a multitude of reasons: broken homes, a defunct foster care system, or simply a desire to travel and be disengaged from society.

“Telegraph is a family, it is home” Coconut confided, “I love this place.” The portraits presented here are part of a larger and evolving project on the young transient population in Berkeley mixing studio with street shots. As a student at Berkeley, I was always dismayed at how the transients were ignored and dehumanized by others.

My rationale for the studio shots were to strip the subjects from their environment with the aim of enabling the viewer to empathize with the subjects first and foremost as human beings. All of the subjects came into my makeshift studio exactly as they were on Telegraph. The street shots – currently a work in progress – in turn provides the context. In the course of working on this project, I at times fully immersed myself on Telegraph; I have slept on the street, under bridge overpasses, spent time in squat houses, and even hitchhiked with a group of young travelers with nothing but the clothes on my back. I have been exceptionally fortunate to have been given a glimpse of their reality. In many ways, these photographs – the subject matter, the aesthetic, the minimal lighting, etc., are also testament to my state of mind at that period in time; I was overcome with a lack of direction, was deeply depressed, and felt “unchained from the sun” after leaving graduate school to pursue photography. As such, in an admittedly exceptionally limited way, I related with my subjects. The decision to leave a PhD program to pursue photography was improbable and professionally suicidal as I had just purchased my first camera only a year prior. These photos were taken within a month of leaving academia and, concomitantly, less than a year of taking my first photograph.



Pete Pin was born in a Red Cross refugee camp in 1982 following the Cambodian genocide and immigrated, along with his family, as a refugee to Northern California in the mid 1980’s. He attended inner-city high school in Long Beach, CA and dropped out as a junior to work full-time. With the generous emotional and financial support from patrons at his place of employment, he was encouraged to return to academics and received his BA in Political Science at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating magna cum laude with high departmental honors and was the recipient of the Outstanding Honors Thesis Award by his department. In the summer of 2008, months before embarking on an eight year PhD program in the social sciences at Berkeley, Pete purchased his first camera with the initial intent of pursuing photography as a hobby. Within a year of graduate school, he abandoned his PhD program to focus on photography full-time. The Ave is his first sustained project. He has received no formal artistic or photography training and is entirely self-taught. Pete currently resides in San Francisco, CA.


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Pete Pin


35 thoughts on “pete pin – the ave”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Pete Pin – The Ave | burn magazine -- Topsy.com

  2. Pete, This is amazing portrait work. What jumped out at me from the first viewing was how old these young people look. To know that they have already experienced life in such a way that has jump started them into middle age. I want to take them all into my home and let them be kids again. The loss of youth before its time…

  3. Pete,
    amazing work and amazing use of light. Strong.
    I already have been following BURN for one year now, this is my first time commenting.

    What amazes me also, is the capability you have to build a relationship and earn their friendship and trust to get to a point where they choose to share their story and their image with you. Inspiring.

    Congratulations and thank you for showing to us.


  4. I’d love to see Burn publish photos from Richard Misrach’s book, Telegraph 3AM, which deals with the same subject matter. Those photos are now almost 40 years old and it would be fascinating to see what has changed and what hasn’t. Unfortunately to book is out of print and highly collectible [ie. expensive]. There are almost no images of the work online.

  5. Pingback: Pete Pin – The Ave | burn magazine | The Click

  6. Yeah, such beautiful kids with already the burden of the world etched upon their faces. Having a sixteen month old boy this essay gives me a lot to think about. Simple and moving. Thanks.

  7. Amazing photos Pete!
    I lived in Berkeley and Oakland for years and I hung out on Telegraph Ave. a lot. I worked on that street for year.
    It hasn’t changed in the last 24 years that I’ve known it
    There are just great portraits. I hope you continue with it.
    Are you recording them? It would be wonderful to have their voices talking about their lives.

  8. Very strong portraits. Each tells a story of it’s own.
    Well set light and an amazing self-esteem in the look of each.
    Congratulations and thank you for showing here.

  9. Very curious to see where you will be taking this.. the project, and your career as a photographer both! My best wishes!

  10. Wow Pete, I just went to your website and I really love the street photography part of this work, really really nice. I was wondering why you did not include those since you mentioned them in your statement. Glad I saw them on your site. Really raw subject matter.

  11. As a student at Berkeley, I was always dismayed at how the transients were ignored and dehumanized by others.

    yet, “they” keep coming, are not hampered “by others” to congregate as a, or many little, communities, can spend “their” days as they wish (little, if no, police coercion on vagrancy), and while doing so, sustained by efficient enough panhandling (handed by the ignoring “others”?).

    “they” also have spaces, such as people’s Park, right there off Telegraph Ave, which are basically theirs, but I wish to rather say, ours (since I often walk around the Ave), to socialize in, and hang around.

    I disagree with the them vs others, Pete, because I think here you merely use that to add some social commentary to your essay, which can solely rely on its photographic quality.

    Within that context, portrait photography, I am divided between what I see and laud as superb psychological accuracy for each individual, within the moment of posing that was given to you, and the fact I crave for a bit of context, visually. But therein lies your success in presenting us these young americans (therefore individuals). We do not intend to ignore them, but instead, are more curious.

  12. Pete, Really strong images. You have found something here. It needs to be documented. It is interesting to note that all the photographs are of ‘white kids’. I wonder is this community predominantly white? As a pharmacist in the inner city of Toronto I see street kids quite a bit, many of them have substance abuse issues. As part of my work I dispense methadone and have also realized the majority of patients are white and some native. Again I wonder what this says about this particular aspect of society, and also what it says about ‘black kids’. Don’t they have they same problems and issues, how are they reacting to their circumstance in different ways? I am not suggesting that you go and photograph ‘black kids’ to round out the essay, it us just an observation that leads to me to wonder.

    Really great work. Congratulations, and all the best,


  13. Pete, these are wonderful.

    I love this kind of portraiture. The very tight, shouders square, straight on what-you-see-is what-you-get head shot has become mainstream. Even magazines such as Nat Geo are using it. Not that it wasn’t always there, but it seems to have become more visible lately.
    I do agree with Herve. The fact that these are street people really does not have a lot to do with the success of the essay, it does stand up on it’s own without that context.

    Herve, I too crave a little visual context, specifically a bit of shadow detail. It is just too easy to just crank the slider over until the shadows are all inky black. Much more interesting IMO visually to at least suggest shadow detail.
    I have commented here before about how young photographers frequently fall into the trap of “if a little contrast is good, then more must be better.”
    When I was in my twenties at photo school, if you wanted to be out’a’sight and groovy, it was popular to “Kodalith” things, Kodalith was a graphic arts film that reduced things to either black or white. Agfa brovira #6 was the highest contrast black and white paper made, and was also popular with the far-out crowd.

    Pete, very intersting stuff on your site. Good luck with your career.

  14. “To be awake is to be alive.”-Thoreau

    It’s great that David has chosen to publish portraits back-to-back….which, for me, highlights the strength (for viewers) of portraiture….that it (for good or ill, rightfully or failingly) connects us to the brother/sisterhood of each of us: we identify the other with ourselves and see in them both what we are and wish and who they are and are not…

    what struck me immediately was their age…that is, the age of their faces and expressions…which tells me both about what they’ve endured (they seem much too old too soon) and what they’ve learned, as life inhabits us and we see this in others even when we fail to recognize this in ourselves…i too love the lighting and its appearance to haliography and lots of biblical imagery, but what i love best about this portrait is that it ‘removes’ the kids from the street, so that we are not ‘blinded’ by what we imagine the street to do to them and what they’ve endured and accomplished, but we must confront and take them in directly, without the detrius of the environment…again, a direct confrontation with our expectations…

    these pictures honor them, their humanity without idealizing…the small details (the scars, the fear, the bloodied eye) point to the viewer that these kids aint perfect nor theirlives, but it takes us, if we allow, past our prejudices….and connects us….

    as iwrote under brian’s essay, these are only 1 aspect to these kids…their lives and their ‘self’ is much larger and much more complex that photography can manage, but what photography does manage to do, and do well, is to act as a vehicle of compassion, an entrance to allow us to see others as we may see ourselves: frail and strong, filled with beauty and grief, troubled and determined…filled with incandescence…..

    beautiful work Pete…like the story on Coconut too….

    and congrats on getting into Icp…

    be proud of yourself and honor that the way you honor these kids…

    thanks for sharing their story and your pictures…


    ps.. you and katia roberts should meet! :)))…since her work is concerned with street kids in Seattle (i think seattle)…

  15. Pete,

    I spent time in Oakland and Berkeley…stayed in the ‘Playground’ cooperative house on Shattuck Avenue…took many photographs and met many people from all walks of life…I remember the Smoke House, the campus, the bars, basketball courts, bike rides and the darker places as well…it is good to see these portraits…My friend Ryan has done similar ones in black and white in Portland: http://pixelgrain.org/streetroots/

    I think that truly caring about photography lets you see things, see people, more clearly than any amount of letters in front of your name. Congratulations on your decision to photograph!!

  16. Pete –

    I am struck by the fact that you began your life homeless in a family that was driven from their home under the worst circumstance imaginable and that then, when life appeared to hold out its hand to offer you the best in secure and safe living, you turned away from it, picked up a camera and put yourself in the middle of the wandering homeless.

    Excellent work. You did bring out something in these young people that most likely would have been missed in street documentary form. I have some misgivings about the processing – the high contrast and deep saturation – but, on the other hand, that’s just me, coming from my background. It does seem to work for you.

    You have a superb talent. I feel humbled just looking at what you have done here.

  17. pete,

    this is one of those series where I did not need to read the words- your photos said enough. Tender, honest photography at is best. That lighting would make Rembrant proud. It seems you didn’t direct these people, just photographed what you saw and that is what makes this series.

    And your only a year older than me? Time for me to get to work!

  18. Wonderfully gritty portraits with a sense of who each individual is beneath the surface, Pete. I appreciate your fine eye, honest portraiture here and in the street shots on your website, and your gumption to take the risky path and follow your passion. I lived in the Bay Area for months every year between 1996-2002 and recognize these kids as like those I got to know at the soup kitchen I volunteered at in the City. I also recognize my Mission neighborhood on your website. You have captured its essence.

    Best wishes as you enter the ICP program in NYC. You belong there. You have made the right choice.


  19. Its amazing what we can read in to somebody’s face. So profound. .. Touching me..

  20. Pete

    I watched the essay before reading the text and i am very glad i did. The purity of the experience was matched by the purity of the portraits. In fact, to me it was utterly irrelevant where/why you shot them. I understand that the where/why gives the essay its raison d’être. However, as with Brian’s essay about black women under-represented in the modeling industry, these portraits are so strong they speak more eloquently than any artist’s statement can ever hope to match. A GOOD THING! Any essay that speaks louder than words is a job extremely well done. The gritty, high contrast look works well with your subject matter. I understand this very well. I can well see what you saw and feel what you felt as you surveyed these portraits on the computer. I know so well the intensity of those eyes staring back at you from the screen begging/daring/snidely waiting for you to step up to the plate and do them proud dammit. And the best way you could convey the deep dark well of their lives was exactly the way you did it. I applaud your efforts and your vision.

    But back to that text..your bio is dramatic and impressive but i find it distracting and takes the attention from your subjects. This essay is now something both part of you and apart from you. You must let it speak for itself while you should speak with a whisper. This is not about you so much as it is about these phenomenal subjects. Please don’t take away their right to shine stronger than any light or any academic achievement of yours.

    Well done, good luck..how exciting to have the rest of your hopefully very long life to further develop and mature your talent.


  21. Thank you everyone for taking the time to view the essay and for the supportive and heartfelt comments. And thank you David and Diego for giving me the wonderful opportunity to participate on Burn. Forgive me for the length of this reply as I’m trying my best to respond to most comments…I’ve always lacked brevity.
    srinivaskuruganti: I do have audio, but only for the Coconut piece on my website (I acquired an audio kit after shooting the portraits). I actually had planned this morning (I kid you not) on putting a multimedia piece together this evening and circulating it to friends for feedback.
    Valery: Thank you for looking at the website. The initial submission to Burn included 25 photos, the initial edit included a mixture of street shots with these portraits. Burn decided to publish just the portraits; in hindsight I think it was a solid editorial decision. It’s very difficult to build a decent narrative mixing studio with street shots and the initial edit was unfocused. I have since tossed most of the street shots and created a new tighter edit focusing exclusively on one subject, Coconut (who is now 17).
    Herve: Ah, you’ve wandered around the Ave :) My belief that they’re ignored by the general population in Berkeley was based on my own personal experiences and from spending time on the “curb.” This is, of course, not to say that people aren’t helpful etc. I wholeheartedly agree that transients in general are “provided” for in regards to the social services in and around Berkeley and the generosity of strangers. It was not my intent to provide social commentary in regards to that specific statement but rather to provide an explanation as to why I started the project based off of my own personal beliefs. If you are still around the area, I’d love to meet with you.
    Frank: In regards to the fact that street kids, travelers, squatters, etc. are generally white, this is something I too have questioned…
    Bob: I am always awestruck by your candor and eloquence. Thank you warmly.
    Patricia: Thank you dearly for the well wishes. I’m still trying to decide on what to do next; ICP isn’t set in stone (finances) although I’m working two jobs in an effort to save up to make it happen. I’m so glad you recognized the neighborhood ;)
    Kathleen: And you’ve touched on why I’ve had mixed feelings all day! I agree with you completely and absolutely in regards to the write up! The write up presented here was written a while back. At the urging of others, I included information as to my state of mind at that period. Over the weekend, (and wondering when I’ll be contacted as to the publication but realizing it was going live any minute) I reread it and panicked, believing, as you have rightfully concluded, that it strongly distracted from the subject! I rewrote the entire piece, including the Bio, and loaded it on the server several days ago; it’s still sitting there…But what is done is done…c’est la vie.

  22. Pete

    Thank you for your reply..not to worry..my critcism of the bio was a nit-pick..your work rises way way above that little tsk-tsk..it’s a wonderful essay and the privilege of seeing your work was entirely mine :))

    DAH..three killer essays in a row, man, you and your talented shooters are on a roll!

    Kudos to you and Anton and Pete, Brian and Zizi..you have all lit a fire under my ass..wow..


  23. Pete! :))

    thanks brother…keep it alight!…

    really love the Caravaggio light/shadow…

    icons indeed

    and dig your ink too…..the living can be long, but the love is eternal :))


  24. Pete – Just so you know, I, for one, am glad that you included all that you did in your write-up and bio. For me, it in no way undercut the power of your images nor take away from the stories of your subjects. It gave me added perspective that I found valuable. It made the story that much stronger for me.

  25. Beautiful work. Was recently in Portland was astonished to see how many more teens are on the streets. Your placing them in the studio to “humanize” them is brilliant.

  26. I would love that, Pete, to meet with you. I also think that what you told us about your refugee background was important to tell us. It is obvious that your shooting these portraits has as much to do with that experience, and then your life wanderings, ie. YOUR LIFE, as to the “technical” ability to capture them.

    If I say I sense the Ave is longer than its labelled span, and extends to one of these border camps your were born in, am I wrong?

    PS: maybe left alone more appropriate than ignored? (not more ignored than me, I can tell you that, try being 55, no dye-wash T-shirt cheating!, in a campus environment such as the Ave, ahahha).

  27. being a photographer who never did any formal studies, but taught others..go for it!
    the portraits are formidable,exciting,profound,beautiful and heroic..
    mr.photographer,”you done good”.
    may you continue with your way, may the light be good and your exposures truthful.

  28. Pete, congratulations on being here. This is a magnificent essay.

    I have to say that I’m hugely impressed by your work, especially after visiting your website and putting things into perspective. I admit that not having read the statement first, while admiring these photographs, I was a bit ambivalent. The portraits themselves are immaculate but their context gave them such a gravity.
    These eyes speak of epics and the choice of presentation and editing are ingenious. As some people mentioned above it’s wonderful to see these kids with the dignity that their circumstances have denied them.

    I cannot compliment you enough. Will be looking out for your work for years to come. Good luck in your new career.

  29. I was one of the subjects in Richard Misrach’s book: Telegraph 3 am. I survived and actually thrived after leaving the streets. Richard captured images which I fought to forget. I realize how important it is to “come out of the closest” to allow those that are there to find hope in change as well as to change the perspective of those that look at street kids and only see the darkness.

    I left the streets in 1973, returned to school, and now am an association executive, have a loving family,and own three homes. I am not alone. By publicly talking about my path, I have been contacted by others from Richard’s book. One, a PhD in Beirut who teaches Arabic. He has published dozens of books and is a a college professor.

    I went back to see The Avenue a few years ago and was transported back in time. It was about 35 years after I left the streets, but the images were the same, the only thing that changed were the faces.

    I am writing about my experience and have permission from Richard to use the image he captured of me as I try to heighten awareness of the problem of youth homelessness.

    You can find me on FaceBook: http://www.facebook.com/Memoirs.of.Dakini


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