By Maya Dalinsky
I am a child of institutions.
A homeless man who no longer
Wants to be homeless.
I look around and ask myself
Am I better than other people?
Am I worse?
When it comes right down to it
I think I am just the same.
-Tony T. "Life of a Homeless Man"
Tony's voice is featured in an exhibition by Ken Betsalel, "Houseless Is Not Homeless," a photo documentary that tells the stories of the homeless. In the exhibition, portraits and prose merge in a mosaic of experiences.
The photographs are the product of several years of documentary work in Ecuador, Spain, and North Carolina. Betsalel began photographing individuals in larger communities while abroad with his wife, and since then has taken a special interest in the homeless and their relationship with themselves and society. The transition came when students from his political science class brought him to a local homeless shelter in Asheville, North Carolina. "I saw people who were building community with the homeless," said Betsalel, "and they weren't treating them as alcoholics or drug addicts, but as individuals."
With a grant from the North Carolina Humanities Council, Betsalel created the "Faces of Asheville" project, a photographer's look into the lives of individuals in his hometown community. Over the past five years, Betsalel has gone beyond the camera and collected personal stories, developing the current exhibition.
"Often pictures of homeless people are ones of alienation and loneliness," said Betsalel. "Photography is a mirror of the aesthetic world, and our job is to capture that so people can understand: these people are not broken by homelessness. Their problems are human problems."
Betsalel hopes his exhibition will give a face to the faceless and provide a forum in which the homeless speak for themselves, tell their own stories, and where individuals can come together to listen and discuss. By holding the exhibition in community centers, libraries, and homeless shelters, Betsalel hopes to establish a context for viewers to better understand these stories.
What I have learned talking with homeless
People is that they are really no different than we are.
Listen for yourself.
We talked about homelessness.
The lack of compassion in friend and stranger.
How hard it is to scrape up the cash to get an apartment.
How it is up to us to change things.
To work in small ways for a better world.
--Tom C. "We Were Just Sitting There Talking": A Volunteer's Story
Betsalel's photographs reveal connections between community members and homeless individuals. They highlight the common ground that students, activists, volunteers, and teachers build with the homeless by learning the blues, meeting for discussion, or sitting on a front porch reading the newspaper. His images reveal the personal lives of the homeless--lives filled with struggle, compassion, and close friendships.
"I think of them as environment portraits," explained Betsalel. "They capture people in their environment." For example, "the couple were friends who were brought together in a circumstance and became partners. She had been assaulted in a shelter the night before, and he was comforting her."
When you are ready to change you will know.
Lots of people helped, I had to be ready. I believe I am.
Homeless for four years.
I have seen my best friends die of drink.
Seen love turn angry like a fist.
Seen hit on and hurt.
Only you know when you are ready.
A matter of heart.
--Brenda H. "When You Are Ready: Brenda's Story"
"Houseless is Not Homeless" is on display at the Talley Student Center on the campus of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina, until September 7 and then moves to the Durham Public Library from September 9 to October 27.
"The human voice is critical," explains Betsalel. "We want the average person to hear their voices."