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Homeless photography: A fresh look


A photo project teams a homeless man with Oklahoma Gazette, Upward Transitions and Curbside Chronicle to help our community experience a new side of our city.

Giancarlo Gonzalez January 16th, 2014

Marcos Powell, 39, originally from New York City, has lived in Jackson, Tenn. as well as Charlotte, N.C. before moving to Oklahoma City.

Powell is part of the homeless population of Oklahoma City. His work experience is mainly in “labor work, construction, roofing and painting.” He is a high school graduate who has a lifelong love of writing and of films.

Powell recently published one of his stories, Sasquatch, online through bookcountry.com. Like any writer, certain works inspire him.

“The writer I’m probably most influenced by is Stephen King,” Powell said. “The first horror movie I watched in my life was a Stephen King movie, Carrie. I first saw it in 1980, when I was a little boy. My babysitter told me about a good horror movie, so I checked it out. It scared the hell out of me. From then on, I became a horror movie fan.”

He is also into spaghetti Westerns and war films, stuff with grit and mystery, and he has long dreamed of being a screenwriter. Then there has always been cryptozoology, too.

“I love studying animals of the unknown, such as Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and I love writing on that,” he said.

An idea is born
Ranya Forgotson, editor of Oklahoma City’s new “street paper,” the Curbside Chronicle, put together by and for metro homeless, has known Powell since the paper’s beginning last year.

“I met Marcos at the Homeless Alliance when we were first starting the magazine,” Forgotson said. “I was told that he was very interested in writing short stories, so that is how conversation first began between us.”

From there, he started selling the papers, and he was able to keep the proceeds — he had his first newspaper job. Each issue is purchased by the Chronicle’s homeless vendors for 75 cents and sold for $2.

Forgotson’s involvement in the homeless photography project started innocuously with a routine meeting on how to best serve OKC’s homeless population. The homeless community has increased 20 percent since 2010, according to numbers released in November from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

During the meeting, a comment was made that the walls of Upward Transitions might be redecorated, perhaps with men and women who learned photography skills through Curbside Chronicle and a partnership with local media. A plan soon formed.

“They could learn a little bit about photography and help open people’s eyes to what the homeless see on a daily basis,” Forgotson said.

There was talk of a possible art show after the project, as well. No firm date has yet been set for a public show, but it’s always a possibility.

Dustin Pyeatt, director of development and communications at Upward Transitions, saw the project as a way of reminding the group who they serve.

“In reality, when it comes to the homeless versus those of us who are not homeless, we live in two different cities,” Pyeatt said. “The city that they see, the city that they live in is very different than the one we live in.”

The learning curve
Forgotson thought Powell would be an ideal candidate for the project.

“We knew that Marcos is very knowledgeable of street life outside of the shelters in OKC and that he would be eager to share these pictures with others,” Forgotson said. “Marcos has expressed his desire for people to understand what homelessness really looks like on several occasions to me.”

Powell was partnered with Oklahoma Gazette photographer Shannon Cornman, who spent time over two days teaching Powell basics. Then, the pair shot Powell’s views of OKC.

“We are entering his world,” Cornman said. Everyone benefits, and she said it’s life-changing for people outside of the project, as well. “It’s more of a learning curve for me. ... He’s a big inspiration for a lot of people.”

Afterward, Powell spoke about his experiences shooting campsites and local missions, where he and friends get in from the cold.

“There are places where homeless people either sleep or hang out in,” Powell said.

Finding places to sleep is not difficult, he said.

“[It’s] pretty much word of mouth. I mean, some person says, ‘Hey, I’m sleeping here.’ That’s how I usually find the spots,” Powell said. “When I first came to Oklahoma in March of last year, I stayed at the mission for the first two months. Then I left the mission and slept on the streets of Oklahoma. So I would see where the homeless people would sleep at, and that’s how I knew where to sleep,” Powell said.

“There was one particular bridge right across the street from the state probation office that was being used a lot. It was really rowdy up in there; there were a lot of fights. I witnessed a stabbing there one time. But that bridge no longer exists; they tore it down. Most homeless people don’t sleep in tents.


"Some do. I don’t sleep in a tent, and I’m on the streets. I got my little secret spot.”

Having a place to hang out is just as a important if you’re homeless, Powell said. On this day, Powell chooses a Valero parking lot, even though he’s not always welcome.

“The cops run them off for trespassing or loitering,” he said. “They keep running us off, but we keep coming back.”

Long-term benefits
The expectation organizers have for viewers of the photo education project is that people gain a new understandings of the people they’re close to, often every day.

“I hope that it can help people see on a deeper level the reality of homelessness in OKC,” Forgotson said. “Homelessness is not a new problem, but we have very little insight as to what the day-to-day life of the homeless is like.”

Forgotson is hopeful in the social component of photojournalism in highlighting the plight of the homeless.

“I think it is important for people to be exposed to realities that they might not have the privilege of experiencing without photography,” Forgotson said. “That is the beauty of photography in general. People can experience mountains, oceans and other places around the world even if they do not have the means of getting there. 

“In this case, these photographs allow people the opportunity to see homelessness, a situation that many of them will never experience firsthand. Homelessness is not just a problem,” he said. “It is real people who have real hardships. I think it is important for people to know that the homeless are a part of OKC too. They share our days with us and our city.”

 
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