For seven years Courtney Farmer has been helping the homeless by collecting and delivering water to a Huntsville shelter. She invited Holly Hollman and I to come with her to document her efforts, not to bring attention to herself but to bring attention to the needs of the people she helps. This is the kind of photo assignment that I get excited about. The potential for great images was dancing in my head like sugar plums in Christmas dreams.
We met Courtney in Athens at her work place. I made a few images of her loading water into her car and then we followed her to the shelter in Huntsville. Courtney got a couple guys from the shelter to unload the water and then, nothing. As great as what she is doing is that was pretty much the extent of it. She collects the water and delivers it in bulk but does not pass it out or anything. I was suddenly confronted with that dreaded word, potential. Sometimes an assignment begins with great potential only to fizzle in reality. I was afraid this was happening right in front of my eyes. There was just nothing else to shoot in the shelter.
Knowing I didn’t have enough to carry a showcase for page 1 I started asking questions. I asked one of the case managers there what they did with the water. This gave me the opening I needed. It turns out they take the water just down the road to one of the many homeless camps beneath the elevated portions of Interstate 565. I asked them if we could do this. Turns out it was not the day they usually do the deliveries but the case worker agreed to ask the shelter manager. Fortunately she agreed and we headed down to the camp with water. Since it was one of the hottest days of the year the water delivery was entirely appropriate.
In the camp we met a group of people who lived in tents. The camp is semi-permanent and many had set up housekeeping in the best fashion they could manage. The first people we visited turned out to be the best visual opportunity. A man and woman shared this site and she had a little pantry set up in a piece of a cabinet they had salvaged. There were a few cans of staple type foods on the shelf. They had a couch and a couple of tents and a chair or two. I shouldn’t have been, but in all honesty I was amazed at the dignity they managed while living in such crude conditions.
We spent about a half hour in the camp and immersed ourselves as much as we could in their lives. The moment that struck me the hardest was when the woman lit a fire in a small bin using mostly trash with a few sticks thrown in to maintain some heat. She set a battered and blackened coffee pot on the grate over the fire. I asked was she making some coffee and she told me no, that would be lunch. She was making some inexpensive, pre-packaged noodles. She then offered some to us and to her camp mate. Such generosity is so impressive to me. It makes me wonder how I would be if I found myself in her situation.
Holly and I left the camp a few minutes later. I got back in my air-conditioned car and drove away. That is the luxury of wealth, I can just drive away. I guess the question that hangs in my mind is did I do enough by telling their story or should I be packing up water and food and extra clothes and hauling my load of stuff over there. There is a tremendous disconnect in our society. I don’t care what politics you subscribe to. This is about morality, not politics. I think we have made a huge mistake by turning over the care of the poor to the government. It builds resentment towards the poor and the government. I don’t know what the answer is but I will leave you with a thought. Jesus once said, “… whatever you have done to the least of these you have done unto Me.”
Photos copyright Gary Cosby Jr., The Decatur Daily. The opinions expressed in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.