When looking at a photo of a stranger, we can’t tell what their personal or financial situation might be. Nor do we know their obstacles or their victories. But we can figure out the emotions, their feelings. That face can be yours yesterday, or mine tomorrow.
I came to understand all that just recently, while putting together an exhibition. In the eyes of everyone I photographed, regardless of their social standing, I saw this same pride at being considered, and that same gleam of hope when I asked each subject to think of a dream or a passionate interest.
By Étienne Langlois
My wife’s parents live in the town of Wyoming, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Its rhythm of life is that of a residential bedroom community, as its 9,000 inhabitants go to Cincinnati for most of their cultural activities. You drive up and down hilly streets bordered by large trees, and pass grassy lawns with flower beds to get to the main street, which will take you to the Queen City in 20 minutes.
Cincinnati has known good times and bad times. Once a pork capital, with its numerous butcher shops and its direct access to all of Ohio’s pork production, it attained its peak population in the 1950s. At the time, 84% of its population was white, including a number of European immigrants, and 15% of its population was black.
Between 1910 and 1940, Afro-Americans from the Deep South fleeing racism and persecution moved to the Midwest, the North-East and the West. Afterward, another great wave of migration took place between 1940 and 1970, principally motivated by the need to find employment, though racism was never far from their minds and hearts. After that final migration, 80% of all Afro-Americans lived in urban areas, compared to 70% of the United States’ general population. Gradually, whites left the city centres for the outer suburbs, far from the action.
The result for Cincinnati: in the 2010’s, the white, non-Hispanic population was 49% and the black population was 45%.
It goes without saying that even though they are relatively well integrated, the Afro-American population bears the brunt of poverty. The 2008 financial crisis plunged the United States into a recession which is still felt to this day. Loss of home, job, car, the fridge is empty, junk food is cheaper, education becomes non-essential, family problems, personal problems, addiction… And once again, Afro-American families experience these situations more than the rest of the population, thanks to poverty.
My in-laws Brigitte and Antoine, originally from France, have volunteered at the St. Francis Seraph Ministries for years. That’s a help centre in Cincinnati for people in need, run by Franciscan brothers. My in-laws help serve meals mornings and evenings to a steady clientele. Blacks, whites, youths, seniors, the unemployed, those not earning enough to eat three times a day, those living on the street or in lodgings they can’t really afford, those sane of mind or driven crazy by life’s difficulties, or by abuse…
Everyone has their reason for accepting a nice hot meal sheltered from the weather, surrounded by people who are living through the same hardships or who wish to help, to share a moment, a coffee, a break.
In visiting the Persécutés/persécuteurs exhibition by the German photographer August Sander (no “s” at the end) at the Shoah Memorial (the Holocaust museum) in Paris, Antoine was touched by the intimate photos of the citizens of Cologne under the Third Reich; especially, those of Nazi soldiers or of persecuted Jews. One could sense the humanity underneath the uniforms or the dirty ragged clothes. That’s how he came up with the idea of an exhibition of photos of the people who come to the centre to be fed or to seek help, and of those who extend a helping hand.
It was with pleasure that I accepted his invitation to photograph these faces, now on display in the St. Francis Seraph Ministries’ dining room.
On this early July day in 2019, morning broke sunny, hot, radiant. The streets of Cincinnati awoke slowly to the new day.
Life around the centre is both colorful and hard. Men and women, worn down by nightly excesses or want of sleep, talk among themselves or wander about alone. Others, fresher faced, show up and find a bit of shadow to sit in for the day. A few kids, unworried or too serious for their age, play among this slice of life that many are afraid to pass by, even in a car.
Anxious, I await my encounters. Since beginning my career as a videographer-filmmaker, I’ve photographed a number of people from the famous to the infamous, those with sunny pasts and gloomy pasts. But I’d never managed to capture, from so close a vantage point, poverty and hope, bitterness and faith, light hearts and broken hearts.
Relaxed or evasive, the subjects become my goal. A little imaginary wall shelters my emotions as I capture a part of their lives, which they leave bare for a complete stranger.
Regina smiles with all her teeth and, to put herself at ease, tells us stories of things she’s experienced at the centre. Once a beneficiary of the centre’s services, she now gives back by volunteering. In front of her smile she makes the shape of a heart with her fingers.
Anthony is a veteran. He proudly wears his U.S. Army cap, but also sports dreadlocks down to his shoulders. His world-weary, piercing gaze speaks for him. I imagine how hard war is, the traumas, all followed by a lack of purpose, the street, the daily battles with a system that used him, then rejected him.
Ed, seated in the inner courtyard of the neighboring Franciscan church, speaks very little. For the photo, I ask him to think of one of his interests, or one of his dreams. He simply lifts his eyes up to the sky and joins his hands. A believer, he thinks of God and tries to thank Him. I almost saw a ray of sunlight burst through the clouds and touch him.
Gregory has lived every one of his 70 years, his back bent by time, eyes squinting through thick glasses. Leaning on his cane, he bursts out in his best smile, resembling a Popeye chewing on his dentures.
Renee has brought her granddaughter. She wants her portrait photo done with Queen, smiling, head decorated with little white balls, her own little solar system. Holding in her arms this little constellation that she takes care of when her mother works, Renee is solidly built, her sturdy bearing dominated by large greying tresses.
We named our exhibition Reflections, a reference to the faces captured by my camera and to the people in these images, with their strengths and their experiences. This could also refer to the many faces of poverty, which are often hidden. And more directly, an idea by my wife and accomplice Pauline, who orchestrated the installation, illustrates this: in the middle of the exhibition, on one wall, a mirror reflects our own reflection from head to waist. To show that one day that could be me, you, him, or her in that situation.
Within the exhibition, the centre’s beneficiaries mingle with volunteers and employees. You can’t tell who is what anymore.
The reflection becomes merely human, no matter what its story.
Regina, emotional, spends a lot of time in front of her photo . She looks at her own expression, gauges her feelings at that moment. This rediscovery within her own portrait fascinates me to this day.
In looking at his own photo, Gregory’s squinting eyes open, illuminated. He thanks us for having seen him, immortalized him, moved him.
Sanantonio doesn’t ever remember seeing a portrait of himself in his whole life. In his photo he holds up his deformed hands without embarrassment and makes an amusing grimace. He will see his portrait at the centre a few times before the cold sets in on the street and he gets himself arrested by the police, so he can spend the winter in warmth.
We walk slowly before the photos, moved, proud and grateful for the generosity of those who accepted to lend us a part of their story and their privacy. When the dining room isn’t busy with mealtimes, people can come and see these faces that we pass every day, in every city.