“Take a photo of us,” said Jem. She was sitting beside Henry (not their real names). Jem was his new friend, hoping to pick up some extra cash by throwing in with an experienced panhandler.
As usual, I was walking with a camera slung around my neck. I always give Henry some change so stopped to chat.
Photos as intrusion
I never take photos of my homeless neighbors unless they ask me to. It feels too much like an intrusion. But when they ask, I always do. I don’t post them anywhere, but if they are regulars in the neighborhood I offer to make prints for them.
This time I made three prints, one each for Henry and Jem and for Jem’s brother, a talented musician who in summer plays regularly in the downtown core.
I’m glad I did because Jem moved back to her hometown soon after. I was able to give her brother two photos, one of which he promised to send to his sister.
A photo carried for two years
The third photo was in my office for two years. Henry is an irregular regular on our streets. When I see him, I stop to talk. Then he disappears for weeks or even months.
For two years I carried around the photo but only intermittently. I wanted to keep it in pristine condition for him. Somehow I never had it on me when he reappeared. I would carry it for a week or more after each sighting, then give up and tuck it back in a safe place.
I don’t know what he thought each time I smacked my head and said, “I still have that photo. I’ll give it to you next time I see you.” He always smiled and gave me a hug, but I wonder if the promised photo seemed as elusive as his next meal.
Then today I saw him as I was on my way home. A new friend and I were heading to my high rise after a wonderful walk together. Henry was sitting beside the path.
I have a photo for you
“Henry,” I said, “Will you be here for another ten minutes? I’ll go home and get that photo for you.”
I don’t know if he even remembered what photo I was talking about, but he said he would be there.
Ten minutes later I stopped beside him, photo in hand, inside two envelopes that would keep it in good condition if he tucked it into his shopping cart.
He looked at the photo of him and Jem. His eyes filled with tears. “This is sacred,” he said, his voice soft with emotion.
It was one of those moments when the pell-mell rush of life stops. The photograph had become a medium of exchange far greater than one small piece of coloured paper. I can’t see into Henry’s heart so won’t speculate on the meaning of his grateful tears.
But I do know what it meant for me. This has been a hard year for soft hearts. Our homeless population has burgeoned, and I do not have the solutions for the complex issues.
What I do have is a heart burdened by suffering my small change cannot begin to alleviate. Henry eased that burden a little today, with the gift of his joy at seeing a photograph of his sweet face.
I hope he will take me up on my offer, to take a photograph of him any time he sees me with my camera. I will print it, and I will carry it around as long as it takes to deliver it.