For several years, I have been walking the streets of New York City, photographing and interviewing the elderly, I began this project while taking a class at the International Center of Photography as a long-term project. The subject of the elderly was my wife's suggestion, having worked for over 30 years in the area of mental health services to the elderly. At first, I was only taking photographs, often with no conversation. However, being a social worker, I was curious about the people I was photographing and began talking to them. For many of us, the elderly on the streets in New York are mostly invisible. But as I learned about their lives, how they lived and what they accomplished, I realized I wanted to give voice to their stories. This project continues to excite me, and from receiving calls from agencies that serve the elderly in New York City, to family members who want me to come interview their aging parents, to elderly people who want their story told, I am totally immersed.
However, I also feel that I need to do something more.
I have been told by several documentary photographers not to do the homeless. "It has been done, and it's overdone." However, I would like to cover this serious issue, in a different way. Just as I think it is important to tell the story of the seniors in New York City, I think it is equally important to give voice to the homeless. Everyone talks about the problem and we all see people sitting and sleeping on the streets and the subways every day. One can be bombarded by requests for food, money, and help. We avert our gaze so as not to see the pain of grown men and women sitting on a cold sidewalk. The city has not been able to adequately address the scourge of a lack of affordable housing, safe shelters, services to mentally ill, and good-paying jobs that can lead to homelessness.
Rather than talk about the "homeless," I wanted to humanize the people who are struggling to survive. How did they get to this place? They were not always homeless. Many have families but may be estranged from them. Is it because they have a mental illness and need treatment? Do they have an alcohol or drug problem? And why are so many of them veterans?
I do not have the answers as to how we address the scourge of homelessness in the city. But I would like to humanize them, make them visible, understand what has happened in their lives that has propelled them to living on the streets and give voice to their stories. I hope their stories touch you as they have me. Please let me know your thoughts and comments as you get to know them.
Herb Bardavid, LCSW