Seattle photographer Jesse Rogers knows that photographing homeless people is often exploitative, if not cliché. But for him it was a project of passion—and compassion. His father runs a soup kitchen and programs to get the city’s homeless back on their feet.
He spoke with Vantage about his process and the subjects he shot for his standout series.
“Before I even considered myself a photographer, I knew that taking sad, black-and-white, from-the-hip snapshots of homeless people was more cliché than Nicholas Sparks could ever hope to be, so I wanted to make sure my work would be different.
I treat these photos like a production, rather than a snapshot. I bring assistants and lights and direct the subject carefully, as I would for a corporate client. My goal is to portray these people with a sense of pride and dignity.”
“I’ll be out with friends and spot a subject I just have to photograph. It’s weird because it probably looks like I’m checking out a girl and being creepy, but I’m actually checking out a homeless dude. Still creepy? Maybe.
If I can, I’ll stop right there and chat with them — ask their story, how long they’ve lived in Seattle, and what led to their current circumstances. We’ll talk for a half hour or until I’ve run out of John Hughes references, then I’ll shake hands, drop a few dollars in the jar and say, ‘See you around.’ When I come back with all my equipment, they remember me and have no issues posing for the camera.”
“After having met the subject previously, I come back with a friend/assistant, and talk for a few minutes, making sure they remember who I am and that trust has been established. I ask, ‘Do you mind if we set up some gear and take some photos with you?’ I’ve yet to be denied.”
“I like to keep a conversation going while shooting to get more natural expressions and hear more of their story. I usually shoot for about 20–30 minutes, then show them a few of the photos on the back of my camera. They’re usually not particularly excited when they see the LCD, but I always bring them a few 4x6 prints the next week, which seems to have a deeper effect.
The print thing is a big deal to me. 99% of the city walks by these people as if they’ll catch something just by making eye contact. The print is tangible proof that they exist in a world that actively ignores them. Every single one of them that I’ve had the pleasure to run into again still has the prints and protects them well.”
“My favorite story is Nelson the artist. He was 75 years old and homeless when I met him, and I bought one of his drawings after I photographed him. He’s the sweetest guy. With the help of a very cool nurse, Nelson was able to raise enough money to move to Florida to be near his family, and is no longer homeless. I’m actually friends with him on Facebook now, and he posts updates now and then. He seems really happy, and I’m glad I got to meet him and follow his story.
Most of the men I’ve photographed are not homeless because of an addiction or irresponsibility. None of these people ever expected to be homeless; in fact, a lot of them moved out to Seattle for job opportunities that didn’t work out. Some people have that padding of a support system. If I had a string of bad luck and lost everything, I know my friends and family wouldn’t let me be homeless. These guys just didn’t have that when things got bad, and that’s really the only difference between them and the rest of society. The mental illness and addictions often don’t kick in until after they’re on the streets. I’ve learned to be extremely grateful for my support system and the stability of my health, career, and relationships because it can all change in a heartbeat.”
“I enjoy the reaction I see when I hand the prints to the subject. I don’t see myself as some sort of camera-wielding superhero, and I can’t say I even have a particular ‘cause.’ I think I just genuinely enjoy the way the photos turn out, and the process itself — meeting interesting people and hearing amazing life stories.
I have been told that seeing the images and reading the stories has changed some people’s perception of the homeless, which I think is pretty cool. If I can make a homeless person feel worthwhile and portray them well enough to make other people see them as actual people, then that’s more than I could ask for.”
“When I’m not lugging my gear around the streets of Seattle, I’m at my office where I hold a creative director position at a software firm. I do a lot of design and illustration work for the company, as well as overseeing photography and video production. I’m currently working on a video series for my dad’s organization, and spending a lot of time with my cat because she’s been in a good mood for like two weeks now.”