When Charlie O’Hay started photographing Philadelphia’s streets two years ago, he wanted to reconnect with a city vastly different from the one he moved to in 1967 as a 5-year-old boy. O’Hay thought viewing Philadelphia through a camera lens would help reacquaint him. But what began as a recording of the city’s transforming architecture soon evolved into a portrait of one particular urban element: the homeless.
Maybe it’s because the 50-year-old freelance writer and editor is a recovering alcoholic who was “pretty much a brown-bag, 40-ounce malt liquor drunk from 1980 to 1995.” He says his personal struggles with alcohol and drugs allowed him to relate to the city’s homeless population.
And since November 2010, as part of his “Everyone Has a Name” photo-essay project, O’Hay has posted more than 200 images of nearly 160 people on his Flickr account, putting a much-needed face to a marginalized population.
The “strictly amateur” shutterbug hopes the project can help local agencies like Journey of Hope and Project H.O.M.E. contact and provide help to those in his photographs. According to O’Hay, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services uses his images to identify people in need and improve its own information databases. He plans to donate 20 percent of sale proceeds from his 2011 poetry and photo collection, Far From Luck, to Project H.O.M.E. this November.
We asked O’Hay, who is now 16 years sober, about his project and the emotional toll of photographing people in need.
How did your project evolve from documenting the city to portraying the homeless?
When I was drinking, living in the city and playing harmonica on the street corner for quarters occasionally, I met a lot of guys who were … panhandling, homeless, or either in the shelter system or living in squats and abandoned houses. These were my friends ... When I started this project, I found it far easier to talk to people who were panhandling. I was never very comfortable asking average working people for their photograph because the first [response] you always get is, “What are you gonna use it for? This isn’t going to be on the web, is it?” or “I don’t have time. No.” But when you talk to homeless people, you’ll never hear [them] say, “I don’t have time for a portrait.”
Do you sometimes find it difficult?
Emotionally, it’s very hard to see some people really struggle. There are people I worry about … I try to give them what I can as far as a food card or something that won’t contribute to their addiction.
Who’s the most memorable person you’ve photographed?
I did a series of photographs of a young couple, [Greg & Sophia, pictured above], who are really struggling [with addiction issues] and I’m hoping they get the help they need. They’re in serious crisis. [They] have been living in a tent, somewhere at the fringes of Center City, though they never mentioned where. Last I saw Sophia was on Fri., Aug. 24. She was crying and said Greg had left. She had no idea where he had gone. I happened to have in my pocket a contact sheet of city agencies that aid the homeless, so I gave it to her. Another woman, Jess, whom I’ve also photographed, said she would take Sophia to a shelter. That’s the last I know.
What is the ultimate message of “Everyone Has a Name”?
To de-stigmatize homelessness and to change this view that homelessness is the end—that people just go from there to the grave. That’s a terrible misconception—that the homeless are somehow reckless or doomed. People get out of it all the time. You just don’t hear about [it]. I’m hoping in the future of this project, I’ll get to connect with people who have been out from the system, homelessness or addiction [and document their story].
For more images from Charlie O’Hay’s “Everyone Has a Name” project, visit flickr.com. Far From Luck (Lucky Bat Books) is available on amazon.com