LOWER EAST SIDE — Laurie Nixon, who was first homeless on the Bowery at 15 years old, had never taken a photo in her life before June, she said.
“I thought I couldn’t do it,” she said, explaining how she felt when the Bowery Mission gave her a camera as part of photography project last summer.
The experience, however, proved her wrong. In two weeks, Nixon will be one of eight members of the homeless community to showcase work in the exhibition “Through Our Lens,” which opens Dec. 14 as part of the mission's L.E.S. Art Drive fundraiser.
The show will display 41 photographs that depict the photographers’ daily lives and explore their past experiences, according to Jason Storbakken, who organized the project and serves as the mission's chapel director.
Over the summer, he said, he gave disposable cameras to eight regular visitors to the mission: Nixon, Dennis Brown, Jesse “Indio” Bryan, Irvin Andrew, Frank M. Oquendo, Cleveland Gibbs, Sean Collins and Robert Perry, who was killed last week after a car struck as he crossed the street.
“I didn’t give them any more direction than 'Let others see what you see'... Then they took it in all different directions but there are common themes throughout,” Storbakken said.
The aim of the project is to empower the homeless and give them a voice, he said. While agencies like the Bowery Mission take photos of the homeless to help raise awareness, the process itself takes away their power, he said.
“They consent, they say ‘Yes, take our photograph,’ but they don’t have power and they are perceived as receiving from society rather than being a contributor,” Storbakken said.
“Through My Lens” attempts to change that dynamic, he said, by giving homeless people a camera and ability to express their point of view as they see fit.
“It’s up to them if they want to take a whole roll of pictures of themselves or of other people or things that they see in the city,” Storbakken said.
In addition to capturing the images themselves, Storbakken also met with the photographers individually to help them do minor edits and to write down the stories behind the pictures for captions.
He said he hopes the show gives viewers an insight into the photographers’ lives and helps them understand that “there’s not one kind of homeless person.”
The images will be hung in the Bowery Mission’s dining room in black frames with signage donated by Chicago Sign Systems.
“When it’s done it should look like a real gallery. It should be beautiful,” Storbakken said.
“Through My Lens” will debut at the Bowery Mission, 227 Bowery, on Dec. 14 from 1 to 6 p.m. The exhibition will run through Jan. 25. Click here for more information.