by Diana Kurniawan
It was a rainy evening on Wazee Union art studios on May 12, when handfuls of guests came in packs to see Concrete & Cardboard—a photography exhibit featuring the homeless by Scott Russell, a local photojournalist, in conjunction with the Denver VOICE.
“I got to talk to some of them about life,” said Russell. “If I get to capture my experiences with the homeless [on the photographs], then I’ve done my job.”
Russell, a tall and jaunty fellow with dirty blonde curly locks, walks about the two entrance walls at Wazee Union, almost nonchalant about the controversy that surrounds his show.
Westword posted a blog by editor Patricia Calhoun, titled “Reader: is it really a great idea to photograph homeless people?” Russell stepped up to the challenging question and typed in his comments: “There was no grand vision of something I was trying to accomplish by doing this, I just felt as if it was something I was supposed to follow. My interactions with all of these people were genuine and honest. I spoke to them not as a photographer, but as a person.”
The show was not glamorous, and the photographs were deep, highlighting the texture of the faces of the homeless with the candid messages by each individual written on the cardboard. It was more refined on emotional value, with one photograph of a senior veteran who needs a helping hand, and another of a guy-next-door with a beanie hat with a sign that says, “homeless, anything helps.”
Alongside the photographs were actual signs, collected by Joel Haertling from Boulder dumpsters. Each sign was plucked from the trash, previously used to earn a living, but now discarded.
Thanks to Westword, the free event brought in at least 40 people by 9 p.m., on the first night of this two-day show, with two more hours to go. A number of the viewers donated to the Denver VOICE, which was benefiting from the event, and at least a third of the total viewers signed in to keep in touch with the VOICE.
The exhibit was Haertling’s idea but was embraced by the VOICE to bring awareness to the creativity behind the signs that fly on the streets of Denver and Boulder. As a newspaper that highlights the creativity of the homeless and formerly homeless population, the signs and show fit right into the organization’s goals.
The show coincided with the just-passed Denver ordinance to ban camping on public places, the new policy that provoked a slew of vocal activist to the public hearing on April 30 at 5:30 pm, a full two weeks prior to Concrete & Cardboard. The timing was a coincidence, but a fortunate one—the perfect opportunity to introduce members of the community affected by this ban.