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The Dregs of Society: Look They Can Read! Who knew?

A photo-essay by a National Geographic photographer, featured on the home page at the Sacramento Public Library’s website, has me spinning. The exhibit features the pictures of nine ostensibly homeless individuals using the Sacramento, San Francisco or San Jose public libraries. I grant that it is kind of nice, but it is also ignorant and insulting. Both National Geographic and the Sacramento Public Library (for promoting and posting a link to the photograph exhibit) evidence a stunning deficit of knowledge.

The title of the annotated collection of photographs by Fritz Hoffmann, is “Quiet and Contemplative: Portraits of California’s Homeless” (with an alternate title at the Nat’l Geogrpahic PROOF blog of “California’s Homeless Find a Quiet Place.”)

From the words that present the collection, and the comment section of the National Geographic blog where the work is fully presented, it is clear the collection could more appropriately have been titled “The Dregs of Society: Look They Can Read! Who knew?”

At the SPL website, we are told what sparked Hoffmann to whip out his camera:

“This idea was inspired by a woman I met in the Sacramento Library who was studying a hefty volume on medicine and writing in her journal,” Hoffmann said. “I thought, ‘How many people in mainstream society today will sit down and do that?’ when surfing the Internet, television and smart phones is the norm.”

He noticed other homeless patrons also reading books—often long, challenging books.

For starters, Fritz: There are computers at all of the branches of the Sacramento Public Library as well as at many charities that aid homeless folk. Homeless people in large number are adept at searching the Internet to seek information. Homeless people have learned to use computers in all the common ways that “mainstream society” has. Often that is so because a majority of the people whom you see as homeless used to be mainstream before misfortune, the Great Recession, or some other tribulation bumped them to the street. Other homeless people have learned to use computers and access the Internet because the great majority of homeless folk, like other people, are teachable; they can learn things.

As well, Fritz, a great many homeless people are aware of television and – get this – a good number actually own sophisticated phones, to keep them in contact with their family, to deal with the weird and frustrating corridors of power at homeless charities and to get work. [My phone cost me ten bucks four years ago. But, then, I have other tech toys.]

As for reading “long, challenging books,” you would be amazed. There was a period when a lot of the guys were all reading these two-inch-thick-paperback combat novels, one after the other, on reading binges. Other guys were reading Stephen King. Yet other fellows were into pulp Westerns, which were less challenging, to be sure, but offered up an engrossing read.

There are some guys and gals nowadays who read some very sophisticated books, I wanna tell ya. One guy I know is working his way through the canon of Steven Pinker. [Me, I can't deal with Pinker. That's not because the words are polysyllabic but because his writing seems to me to be the furthest thing from straightforward.] Other people are jazzed about learning from books that are Bible related because they just can’t get enough of Corinthians I and II – or some damn thing. Too, there are Sci-Fi aficionados, mystery and horror buffs. One guy I know reads all he can about cars, guns and John Wayne. Others devour the science magazines on the third floor or keep up with the latest news reading newspapers, addictively.

People in Homeless World, Sacramento, vary greatly. Some are brilliant; others, unsophisticated and troubled. Some, have a lot going on; while others, lost in sorrow or overcome by depression do very little each day. Many homeless folk aren’t worldly; they are gullible and this vulnerability is often the prime factor as to why they came to be homeless. Too, there are many rascals, keen to take advantage of others.

But the ability to read is common, extremely common, common as hell, as is -- to a lesser degree -- knowing how to use a computer and accessing social media.

The very, very nice thing about the photo collection were the people in the pictures who permitted themselves to be photographed and provided information about what they were doing and why.

It is clear, however, that Hoffman took pictures of people whom he perceived as being homeless due to their appearance, based on stereotypes lodged in his head. There is something at least a wee bit bedraggled about all of the nine people pictured, save maybe two. One thing the public thinks – and it seems, as well, a stereotype the photographs persist in – is the idea that homeless people are never presentable; they cannot, do not look like altogether normal, average human beings and aren't very smart.

The truth is that there are a great many homeless Sacramentans who use their guile and have resources such to look very, very good -- damn spiffy! -- most every day. And they smell good, too. But these homeless people who appear to be fully-functioning "normal" citizens would never "do" in a photo collection of homeless people since they don't fit the stereotype

And other homeless people, if they are lucky enough to win at Loaves & Fishes' laundry lotto, or can get a clothing exchange that doesn't make them look ridiculous [and if Horrible Libby doesn't decide to arbitrarily close L&F for nine days straight as she has in the past, or effect 'collective punishment' to deny services to all in retribution for the misbehavior of a few] then the most-penniless of homeless folk can look altogether normal and swell. (And smell good, too.)

In some important ways, homeless people are stuck with being perceived in the mode of horrible wrongheaded stereotypes, similar to some pinned on black people by whites in the 50’s. It is a shame that the National Geographic and the Sacramento Public Library are engaged in having these terrible stereotypes persist. I guess Stepin Fetchit didn't die, he is just homeless, now, ensconced as a wretched homeless stereotype.

Here’s one in the mode of “O, the pathetic unfortunates. Isn’t it awful. There but for the grace of God, go I.” [In other words, here are the people God hates!]:
These images brought tears to my eyes. It’s so easy to overlook and ignore the homeless, the poor, the non-mainstream people in the periphery of our lives. This story and these images are a wonderful reminder to open our eyes and our hearts to the people we see and meet that don’t have as much “property”/stuff as we do.
This commenter doesn’t understand that photographers and homeless-charity donations letters have posited FALSE information in his noggin:
Fantastic this is what needs to be told and what better way than through photography.
This in the mode of “Amazing the backward, stupid dunces can be so appreciative!”:
I could identify with the many homeless who came there to read, in companionship with others, where talking and intimate sharing was not required to feel human, a sense of “belonging”. Despite their unlearned or rejected social values…[homeless] readers are respectful and appreciative.
The above 'snatches' were from three of the first four comments I read. After them, the quality of the some 29 comments improved, but it seems the sources of the comments changed, too. Rather than the public giving voice to the prejudices they've learned and embraced, there were comments from many in the library business who were happy to serve homeless customers/patrons.

While it is nice that library folk had nice comments to share, I would aver that the photograph exhibit sustains prejudice in the public sphere. That is outrageous. (And it doesn't smell good.)

Shame on you, Library Director Rivkah K. Sass, and the Authority Board of the Sacramento Public Library.


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