Homeless capture their street lives on camera

Link to Newsday.com

|judy.bernstein@newsday.com

A photography exhibition by and about the homeless — spawned by a good, hot breakfast? Only a creative type could make that leap.

And last weekend, the leap culminated in the opening in Huntington of an exhibit of nearly two dozen black-and-white images taken by a group of homeless men.

The seeds for the exhibit, which runs through April at Temple Beth El and will be shown at other Long Island congregations, were sown in November 2006, when photographer Rob Goldman found the only slot open on a volunteer sign-up sheet at his temple, for a project with the Huntington Interfaith Homeless Initiative, involved getting up in the dark to make breakfast once a week.

The group’s program, which was organized with the Family Service League of Huntington in 2005, shelters Huntington’s homeless during cold weather, providing hot meals and a warm place to sleep at eight local congregations, says Carol Werblin, who chairs Temple Beth El’s social action committee and is also heavily active in the initiative.

Although he cooked for the men each week, Goldman, 45, says it took almost until the end of the program that first season he was involved, in March 2007, for relationships to start to build. That was partly because most of the homeless served by the group are from Central America and Mexico and don’t speak much English.

“I really wanted to find a way to not be a voyeur, not a casual observer…to find out what it’s like to not have what I have,” Goldman says.

He was inspired by photographer Zana Briski’s 2004 film, “Born Into Brothels,” which won a best documentary Oscar and concerns children living in Calcutta’s red-light district who used cameras to chronicle their lives. Goldman enlisted Manhattan firms Flatiron Color and Lexington Labs to process film and produce exhibition prints at low cost. The homeless-assistance group Friends of the Students for 60,000 and Temple Beth El’s Social Action Committee helped buy the 80 disposable cameras the men used.

The exhibit captures the photographers’ lives on the community’s streets and in the woods where they sometimes sleep.

“They take amazing pride in their work,” Goldman says, and they got excited when he displayed their photos for them, saying, “‘That’s mine! That’s mine!'”

At the exhibit’s opening on March 29, the photographers were brought in to see their handiwork. Their pride was evident as they examined their framed photos on the temple’s stark white walls and grinned as they shook Goldman’s hand and embraced him.

Asked what he hopes the exhibit will accomplish, Goldman acknowledges the lack of any simple solutions to the men’s homelessness. “I don’t propose to have any answers; that’s the beauty of art,” he says. But perhaps the show, he adds, will “force people to look at their own questions and see if the solution can begin.”

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