IU East art exhibit documents the life of the homeless in Cincinnati
Three journalists spent a year documenting the lives of people in homeless camps in Cincinnati: their handmade shelters, their struggle for subsistence and their relationships with one another and with the larger society.
In photographs, audio and stories, a new exhibit titled "A Place to Call Home: The Camps & Domiciles of Cincinnati's Urban Homeless" shows the experiences of these people over the course of four seasons, including the joy of a wedding and the tragedy of a fatal fire -- the stuff of life, lived outdoors.
"A Place to Call Home" is on exhibit at Indiana University East in The Gallery, in Whitewater Hall, through Feb.17. Visitors are welcome to view the exhibit during gallery hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The exhibit includes works of photography by Jon Hughes, narrative by Gregory Flannery, audio by Margo Pierce and digital transfers by photojournalist Sean Hughes.
"This is the first exhibit of this work and is, in a way, historical," Hughes said. "While there have been numerous scholarly articles and media stories about the homeless, in my research I was unable to find any photographic documentation of contemporary urban camps. This yearlong documentary is unique."
Hughes, director of the journalism program at the University of Cincinnati, is a journalist, author and playwright. He said he gained inspiration for this project from the work of the photographers for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s -- especially Dorothea Lange, who defined for generations the people affected by the Great Depression -- the documentary work of Walker Evans and Sebastiao Salgado, and the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Hughes took a closer look at the men and women of today who choose to abandon the local shelters and live in urban camps. "This is the other America, the camps and domiciles of the urban poor," Hughes said. "They are essentially a counter-culture, migrants moving from place to place within or to other urban areas."
The journalists visited more than 15 urban camps within the city limits of Cincinnati and found that several were exposed and abandoned when surrounding natural cover was cut. "A property owner bulldozed several camps while police officers destroyed others with sledgehammers," Hughes said.
Flannery said the journalists made regular visits to the urban campus to interview the residents and document their living conditions.
"We heard many crazy things in homeless camps, but the most outrageous statement we heard proved to be true -- and telling," Flannery said. A man named Rick, staying at a place once known as Camp Scabies, explained that he had been in touch with a nonprofit agency that helps homeless people get homes but said the agency couldn't help him. "Its funding was only to help homeless people who had a certain kind of criminal convictions," Flannery said. "'I don't have the right convictions,' Rick said. His sentence? To live in the bushes along the highway."
Flannery added that each individual they talked to ended up as a resident of the urban campus for a different reason.
"A few say they prefer to live outdoors, but that is not to be believed. These aren't people who can afford to live indoors but choose to camp outside," Flannery said. "Some have fled domestic violence, some are on the run from arrest, some are addicts, some won't leave their romantic partners in order to live with relatives, some are so mentally ill that they cannot keep a place, some aren't allowed at emergency shelters, some don't qualify for programs that would provide them housing."
The images hanging in the gallery are striking. Hand-made lean-tos are fabricated from tarps and ropes. Tents and discarded furniture are used to try to establish a home. Heaters, wood-burning stoves and makeshift water catchers are used to provide the usual comforts of home.
"Each person viewing the exhibit will come to a very different personal conclusion. Hopefully all may realize for the first time that there is another, very different, America not far from the warmth and peace of their family home," Hughes said. "Others may admire the ingenuity of those living outside the mainstream of society. Still others may be appalled that individuals in the most powerful and wealthiest country on earth live this way. And there are others who will say 'good riddance.'"
This exhibit is part of the "A Place to Call Home" project. Research support provided in part by University of Cincinnati Taft Department Research Grants.
For more information, call Ed Thornburg, gallery curator, at 765-973-8605 or visit iue.edu/gallery.