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Doug Haight, a local photographer, approaches his work with a unique tenderness with his subjects. He recently ended an exhibit where he put on display 21 intimate, life-size portrait photos of homeless citizens in Evanston. The project, titled See My Story, was featured at Perspective Group and Photography Gallery; each portrait is accompanied by a short caption and a few quotes from the participant about their unique story.
Haight has already given more than a dozen presentations to various community groups, during which he invites his participants to present alongside him and offer their own experience of homelessness.
For his collaborative multimedia project, Haight partnered with Connections for the Homeless and Interfaith Action, two community organizations focused on aiding those experiencing homelessness. Haight says he spent a good chunk of his time on the project relationship-building at places like the Hospitality Center, a facility run by Interfaith Action, that offers homeless people respite, grooming, and more.
“They gave me access to be able to meet people… The caseworkers would help me sometimes,” Haight said. But most of the new contacts he would soon learn he’d have to make on his own.
A process building relationships
The inspiration for See My Story came to Haight in 2017 at a fundraising luncheon hosted by Connections. A visiting doctor from Boston who lectured at the event told a story about a homeless shelter that hung photos of its residents. He told the crowd that the portraits changed the way residents looked at themselves and at each other.
“It was not the subject of his whole talk by any means – it was a little thing,” Haight said. “And it was a little thing that caught me because as a photographer, I thought, well, I could do that.”
Haight first thought that the project would be easy, and that meeting folks would go quickly. But at first glance, many of the people who would later agree to the project didn’t trust him or his intentions.
Over time, Haight built relationships with people independent of the project. He knows them well. He’s been to their apartments, processed his life with them, and helps them process in return; and it is an unexpected community of friends that he has been gaining since 2017.
“And I didn’t really expect that in some ways,” Haight said. “I didn’t really expect to have to go deeper in some ways. And that’s one of the things about the project that became the most rewarding.”
From the start, Haight knew he wanted participants looking directly at the camera for the portraits, and looking right back at the viewer. He also knew he didn’t want photos taken in a professional studio, so the photos were made in locations that are significant to the participant.
Cornelle and Kristina are a couple who were photographed in front of the car they slept in most days. Brian, a shirtless man, wanted to have his photo taken in the shelter he is in.
“This is Tracy’s apartment that she has in Lincoln Park,” Haight says, gesturing at a photo of a seated large middle-aged Black woman with a Black bob and intense stare. “She’s a good example of somebody that I met when she was homeless, she did not have a place . . . Two or three years ago, when I met her, she was sleeping at the airport.”
Doug intended for all the photos to have a specific look. So, for lighting, he relied on natural light and then lit every subject with one single additional light.
Kyle, 45, is from Lexington, Missouri and is one of the participants whose portrait hangs in Haight’s gallery. He was photographed in front of a washer and dryer set in a YMCA laundry room. Kyle moved to Evanston in 2006 and became homeless in 2018.
During the gallery presentation on September 16, he shared his experience being homeless.
“I would sleep at tables at the Burger King, the booths. The guy there on Sherman, who’s the overnight manager, lets homeless people sleep. You couldn’t lay down on the booth, you had to sit upright. You could sleep there until about 7 a.m. then he kicked you out.” Kyle said.
Before it closed, that Burger King was one of the few indoor spots in Evanston where homeless people could sleep, he said, and there were three or four others that would sleep there every night.
“So that’s where I met Alan, Scott…. somebody else too. Nate was there, Nate would be there every once in a while. We had our laptops and stuff. We actually would stay at the Burger king all night watching Netflix and then we’d sleep for a few hours, and then we’d go to Sue’s and actually get to lay down on yoga mats.”
“Sue’s” is a nickname for the Hospitality Center, where Sue Murphy has been the director for over twenty years. When the weather warmed up, Kyle would sleep on a park bench.
To try to make an income, Kyle would deliver for Postmates, a food delivery service, by walking and using the CTA. At best, he says he could make $15 to $20 a day. Sometimes he didn’t make any money.
“During the Superbowl I made 70 bucks.”
Once the pandemic hit, Connections, local hotels and the City of Evanston partnered up to place homeless Evanstonians in hotel rooms. Once he was placed in a hotel, Connections helped him find an apartment. For the past year, Kyle has live in an apartment in Skokie, and has two part-time jobs, one at the Wilmette Park District Fitness center, and the other at Starbucks.
Chris, 40, has been homeless on and off for the last 20 years. He said he became homeless at 20 for “doing the wrong stuff,” like stealing or abusing drugs, and so his parents kicked him out. They told him he could come home if he changed his ways, but at that age, he chose the streets – a decision he deeply regrets now.
During some of those years, he lived in an apartment while in a relationship, but says that homelessness would always come to him when he “fell off the wagon” of his heroin addiction.
As Chris addresses the Sept. 16 crowd at Perspective Gallery, Haight asks him, “How is your mental health when you’re homeless?”
Chris responded, “It’s terrible. It’s the worst. You know, there’s a lot between being attacked, and being robbed while you’re asleep, literally getting your teeth kicked out while you’re sleeping and different things like that. Even to this day I have frostbite, still on my toes from standing out there, waiting in line for the shelters.”
Chris says that, on the streets, what he and other homeless people refer to as “the trail,” all you’ve got are the people around you. “You don’t have nobody but everybody else that’s on the trail, you know so you build a kind of camaraderie.” He says the nights were easier for him when his buddies were around.
This past January, with the help of Connections, Chris got back the apartment he lived in ten years ago, and now lives alone there. It’s a blessing, he says, but it didn’t make his mental illness go away.
“I think I just found myself depressed, you know, I felt, you know, like, wow. Like all of a sudden here’s your apartment. You know, for somebody who hasn’t paid rent or taxes or a bill or something in 16 years ten years, I was shell shocked.”
By the end of his talk, Chris made it clear that he trusted Haight, and was glad to be a part of the project. Initially, he says, many homeless people were hesitant.
“You know, he’s tenacious. He showed us that he cares about it, the story.”
Murphy agrees. She was beaming as she talked about Doug, who she initially was suspicious of when he arrived to her center with a camera. Those concerns eventually melted away.
“Often there’s a photographer who’s there when we’re having a fundraiser. And I tell them when to take a photograph, and it’s all very beautiful. The difference is Doug spent 18 months at least, maybe longer, developing a relationship. And I think that’s why you look into these eyes, and you see a real person, because it’s a relationship, they trusted him.”