“A Voice for the Voiceless”

By Genevieve Cottraux

Activists in the humane movement often refer to themselves as providing a voice to animals whose needs are not heard.  Similarly, for photographer and filmmaker Randy Bacon people who are homeless need to be heard and they also need to be seen.  In The Road I Call Home, an exhibition of portraits, stories, and film of the homeless community in his hometown of Springfield, Missouri, Bacon provides an outlet for the people featured to be seen and to be heard in their own voices.

2017 Presidential Social Change Artist in Residence at Saybrook University, Bacon is also the founder of the nonprofit humanitarian story movement 7 Billion Ones.  Referring to the “You Matter” movement, 7 Billion Ones aims to connect and empower us through the transformative power of stories:

So 7 Billion What?  Seven billion one-of-a-kind creations call this planet home—each of these “ones” being important, with a story that counts.  Yet, the sad truth is that as humans, as the “ones”, we easily can get lost in the bigness of the world—the seven billion people.  Humans lose sight that we each matter and have a unique, compelling, and inspiring story that needs to be told AND shared with the world.

Recently on view as part of the January 2018 Saybrook University Residential Conference at the Hyatt Regency Monterey in California, the large-scale studio portraits, each with a narrative in the depicted individual’s own words, are hard-hitting and compelling, daring the viewer to look at these faces that many of us tend to avoid when encountered on the streets.  In a presentation at the conference, Bacon called it being “punched in the heart” and “wrecking lives,” meant in a positive way of becoming aware, understanding, heeding the call to be compassionate, and recognizing that every single person matters.  There is a need for us to evolve into what Bacon calls “compassion warriors” on the front lines, trying to “impact, change, and heal this broken world.”

In the film presented as the opener for the talk, several of the homeless individuals, whom Bacon prefers to call friends, spoke of their lives and their hopes.  The film opens with Jason, who gets to the point by affirming that, although people say, “not in my backyard” and don’t look at the homeless as people, “it doesn’t matter if you don’t want us in your backyard or not, honey, we’re still here.  We still live, we still have souls and they need to be fed.”

Each friend is offered a name and a voice.  A common concern is feeling overlooked, unseen, invisible.  As Coco put it, “People overlook the fact that you exist because you’re an inconvenience.”  Listening to and reading the stories also brings a surprising sense of hope and optimism.  Donnis, in particular, whom Bacon affectionately refers to by his street name Caveman, conveys a positivity we can all learn from:

Advice I would give to others?  The magic to all of it?  It’s a smile.  You know what I’m saying?  If you can’t find that, you got a problem.  It’s not the world, it’s you.

What do I think of when I hear the word love?  Well, to me, love is like a ray of sunshine and a smile.  If I can make someone smile that don’t even know me, they will remember me the next time they see me.  And that is the love that I see… These streets made a monster out of me—the monster made out of love…you know what I’m saying?  I love me.  It’s all cool.

Portrait of Donnis, by Randy Bacon, courtesy of the photographer (7 Billion Ones)

That love radiates from Donnis’s smiling face.  Bacon reports that Donnis, homeless since the age of 12 and more than 30 years of living on the streets, now has a place to live, signing his first apartment lease in 2017.

While many photographs of the homeless show them in their environments—streets and encampments—Bacon chose to have each person come to his studio for a professional portrait, imparting a dignity to the portraits and allowing each participant to feel special.  Viewed as a group, the portraits do convey a sense of pride and dignity to each subject, allowing them to stand out and really be seen.  The portraits also allude to celebrated artists. The darkened backgrounds and lighting nod to the portrait style of Old Master painters such as Rembrandt.  The portrait of Coco and her 2 children, on first glance, brings up the connection to paintings like Raphael’s Madonna della seggiola (Madonna of the Chair).

Portrait of Coco by Randy Bacon, courtesy of the photographer (7 Billion Ones)

At the end of his presentation, Bacon was awarded the Saybrook Medal of Distinction for Service by Saybrook University President Nathan Long.

The exhibition is presented by 7 Billion Ones in partnership with Gathering Friends for the Homeless of Springfield.

Along political lines, the Humane Party has developed the concept of zoocracy, a form of government that includes members representing vulnerable minorities such as people who are homeless, as well as representatives for all sentient species.