Thursday, November 18, 2010

Charles Steffen documents the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter

Posted By on Thu, Nov 18, 2010 at 12:56 PM

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  • Charles Steffen
The Auburn Avenue Research Library's latest exhibition, Sheltering Justice: Images and Art of the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter, is composed primarily of Charles Steffen's black and white photography. His portraits of residents often have a quiet, personal quality. The hints of a story, of a life lived before and after the photograph, emerge in his best work. The shelter has been the subject of much controversy in recent years, but the exhibition, aside from a couple protest photographs, doesn't linger much in portraying that struggle. Steffen's focus is clearly on the residents who have come to the shelter looking for a place to stay.

Also included is work produced by residents in the shelter's adjacent art studio. A couple paintings by resident Tae Ree Malone stand out, as well as few pastels by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless executive director Anita Beaty. The exhibition runs at the Auburn Avenue Research Library until Jan. 2, 2011.

How did you get involved with documenting the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter?

I began the photo project in late 2009 and wrapped it up a year later. I became interested in the issue of homelessness back in 2003, probably because I had to walk through Woodruff Park every day on my way to work. I tried to keep my eyes and mind open to what I saw there. In 2003 I organized a forum on homelessness at Ga. State where I teach, inviting Anita Beaty, state senator Vincent Fort, and former city councilperson Derrick Boazman. A few years later I made contact with Anita and the Task Force again, which quickly turned into a very serious commitment. By then I wanted to write a book about the history of homelessness in the city, and I thought that the Task Force would be an ideal place to begin my research. Then all hell broke loose. As you probably know, the downtown business community and city hall have been at war with the Task Force for the last 15 yrs., but in 2006-2007 things really got bad—cutting off the water, cutting off funding, etc. etc. So while I continued to do research on the history of homelessness project, I was personally drawn into the battle. I've been in the middle of it ever since in several roles, most recently as a member of the Board of Directors of the Task Force.

In your portraits of the residents, we get some interesting poses: one man holds two handfuls of candy bars, another holds a painting, some just gaze out of the frame. What was your process for the portraits?

For the portraits, you should know a couple of things about my technique and equipment. I use a large-format view camera. So this means the process of making a picture is very, very deliberate. There is a lot of opportunity for talking, collaborating, figuring out what might work. Most of the portraits I took were done in a make-shift studio that I set up next to the "garage," which is the large space where men can sit during the day and get out of the weather. The studio was very womb-like, a private place set off from the commotion of the garage, which I think helped the process along. I would always sit down and have a talk with the guy who agreed to have his picture taken. Sometimes the conversation was over in a few minutes, other times it lasted a long, long time.

You mention Brian, the man with the candy bars. I saw him in the garage one morning and was struck by his long, black coat, and his fistful of candy bars. There was something about the contrast between the stark and severe coat, and the glittering and garish wrappings of the candy bars that caught my eye. I asked Brian if he wanted his picture made, and he said OK. Once we sat down in the studio, it was clear that he was nervous. It turned out that Brian was selling his candy in the garage against the rules of the shelter, and he thought I was going to bust him. It took us some time to work through the misunderstanding. Finally, he told me that he was a nurse's aid, that he had worked with mentally and disabled children in North Carolina, and that he wanted to return someday and continue his work. We probably talked for 30 or 45 minutes, and then I took the picture. The first exposure was a straight-on shot; in the second he gave me a side profile. That was the winner.

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  • Tae Ree Malone

You have some photos documenting the very public battles surrounding the shelter. Can you talk about what that time was like for the residents?

In the exhibit you see pictures of Homeless Memorial Day, which is celebrated in early November every year. The last couple of years this day has also been a day of protest, because the city has continued its campaign to shut down Peachtree-Pine. You ask what it's like for the men in the shelter. It's like a big stone on their chest; it's hard for them to breath; and then the next day the city and Central Atlanta Progress and a compliant press (your colleague Scott Henry has not been particularly helpful, I must say) adds another stone; and the next day another. Sometimes, the feeling is overwhelming—everything is pressing down on you, everything seems to be caving in. And that's exactly the way our downtown leaders want it. The pile one stone on top of another in the hope that finally the men will say, "Enough. You win." Yet these men keep going, which is an extraordinary thing to see in the circumstances. Every Tuesday morning the resident volunteers (who make up the leadership core) meet to discuss all the issues that have arisen the previous week. You have to see it to believe it—a democracy of the dispossessed, a celebration of life by men who are under siege. Truly, truly inspiring.

I understand that the art included in this exhibition, including paintings by Tae Ree Malone and some pastels by executive director Anite Beaty, was created in the art studio adjacent to the shelter, which had started as Beaty’s personal studio. Can you tell me more this space?

The art studio has always been central to the Task Force's vision of community. It is a place where the creative energies of Peachtree Pine find an outlet, and it has always been our objective that the art studio would be the shelter's public face on Peachtree Street. It is our way of saying that great art comes from all sorts of places, not just the High Museum. Tae Ree Malone is a resident and one of the most active artists in the studio. He collaborates closely with Gregory Walcott, and the portrait of Mario Robinson on display in the exhibit was done by both of them. To give you a sense of the artistic collaboration that routinely occurs in the studio: I took a picture of Gregory standing with a painting he did of an African woman and her child; you might say that I appropriated his art for my own. Then Tae Ree took one of my photos of a guy named Nafis, and produced the extraordinary painting that is on display in the exhibit; so you might say that Tae Ree returned the favor and appropriated something of mine. As for Anita, she has been doing her art for many years, though she doesn't have as much time for it as she would like. In fact, to keep your place in the art studio, you have to spend a certain amount of time there each week, doing your work. The rules apply to everyone. So imagine Anita's surprise when the resident artists told her that she, the executive director, had lost her privileges because she was too busy keeping at bay the forces that want Peachtree Pine closed for good.

I guess I would say this in summary. I took these pictures to document the extraordinary sense of community that flourishes at Peachtree Pine, a community that perseveres in spite of the efforts of our civic fathers and mothers to remove hundreds of poor black men from Peachtree Street. For as the mayor and his business allies at Central Atlanta Progress will tell you (off the record) Peachtree Street is no place for poor people. What I have come to see in the time I have been working with the Task Force is this: if there is one place in this city where social justice is a lived experience and artistic commitment, it is Peachtree Pine.

Sheltering Justice: Images and Art of the Peachtree-Pine Homeless Shelter, featuring work from Charles Steffen, Tae Ree Malone, Anita Beaty, and others, runs at the Auburn Avenue Research Library until Jan. 2, 2011.

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