Hagen’s “Face to Face” Portraits of Homelessness

by Yvonne Bruce

     In June of 2004, David Hagen’s photographic exhibit, Face to Face: Portraits of Homeless People in Cleveland,” opened at the Creative Impetus Gallery (CIG) on the West Side. Unlike most photographs that document homelessness, David Hagen’s portraits were taken in the studio and emphasize his subjects’ humanity, spirit, and individuality. A project more than two years in the making, “Face to Face” is the result of a collaboration between Hagen, CIG, the Northeast Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), and AT&T Wireless. This interview follows up on a story about Face to Face that first appeared in The Grapevine last year (Issue 62, September-October 2003)

Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted via email in July 2004. Supplementary information for this article was provided by Brian Davis of NEOCH and by the “Face to Face” press release.

Homeless Grapevine: Where are you from? Where did you go to school? How did you become interested in photography?

David Hagen: I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I actually dropped out of school to pursue my career in photography. My older brother was a photographer and got me a job working in a black-and-white lab with one of his friends. After that I met a group of people who really went out of their way to help me learn the trade. For example, for the first portrait I ever took, I shot using the wrong film. This was when personal computers were first coming in, and a friend of mine was able to help me save my shots using his software. It took him about eight hours to do what today’s computers could do in ten minutes.

Another example is of the man who owned the photography lab where I worked. I started out there washing the floors, but the owner took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about photography, until I was able to manage the place on my own, even though I hadn’t finished college or studied photography formally. Anyway, when I was just starting out, I photographed a wedding. I had no idea how or what to charge for this, so I charged $100. Well, when I figured out how much everything was going to cost to develop, the total came to $700! But the owner of the lab didn’t charge me for developing the pictures, didn’t give me a hard time about it, he just chalked it up to experience. I couldn’t have made it to this point without people like these sharing their knowledge with me.

I bounced around the Milwaukee market for nine or so years, working with as many different photographers as I could, trying to learn everything I could. After this I moved to Cleveland to help my wife achieve her dream of becoming a pediatrician. I found a wonderful studio here to work in and really just consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I love, which is taking pictures.

     I would have to say what has kept me interested in photography are all the people who helped me. I also really appreciate the fact that one day is never like the next in my profession. A few days ago I was photographing kids with cancer, and today I was photographing kids playing with new toys.

HG: How did you get involved with the “Face to Face” project?

DH: Through a friend who used to work at NEOCH, Staci Santa. Unfortunately, she moved before she saw the project completed.

We were just talking one day and started brainstorming. We came up with this idea to shoot our subjects in such a way that they were portrayed like everyone else. My goal was to make sure the shots had personality and the viewer was forced to look into the subject’s eyes. Fortunately for us, all the subjects had wonderful personalities, and they were very giving of themselves

HG: And in last year’s Grapevine article, you are quoted as saying you “wanted to photograph the homeless population in a way that might make them look just like you, your father, mother, brother, sister, friend or neighbor.” Are you suggesting that the average person’s understanding of homelessness has been negatively manipulated by media images or even by artistic treatments that emphasize the quality of homelessness at the expense of the homeless individuals?

DH: I do think the average’s person image of a homeless person is negative. I believe the media uses images of people living in boxes or under bridges for the shock factor. Lots of times, pictures you see are of people who have not bathed for a bit. I was hoping with this project to show that this is not always the case. More often than not, the people who came through the studio had some education, were well spoken, had a job, and had a positive attitude about life.

HG: Do you think that with your emphasis on the positive, your portraits could be accused of minimizing the devastation that homelessness can wreak on individuals and especially on families?

DH: I have been asked if my photos minimized homelessness before. I certainly hope not. This was not my intention at all. I was hoping to stop people in their tracks and force them to look. From the response I have gotten, I think we did this and hopefully have changed a few minds. Maybe they won’t be so quick to turn and run away.

HG: So would you say that your photographic work manifests an interest that is primarily aesthetic or primarily political? What relationship do you see between the aesthetic and political aspects of art?

DH: Aesthetic or political? I believe it is a fine line between the two. When I take on projects like “Face to Face,” I try to do my part to make a difference, no matter how small. I try to get my point across all the while, giving the viewer something to look at and something to think about.

HG: What is your usual photographic subject matter? How does “Face to Face” differ from your other work?

DH: My day-to-day work is commercial photography. I usually photograph products which are going to be introduced to consumers in a short while. I also

hoot some food along with some architecture. “Face to Face” is quite a bit different from my normal work. One, I was photographing everyday people, not models, who are a lot of whom I shoot. In addition, “Face to Face” is a project which was meant to change people’s views on homelessness. Much of my work is creative, though sometimes meaningless. This was a project that truly I felt could make a difference in someone’s life.

     One example of this is an amazing story that came out of this project. The Associated Press was one of the media organizations that covered the opening of “Face to Face,” and it ran the story using a picture of Twyla, who was one of the subjects of “Face to Face.” Twyla’s parents got wind of the story and eventually were able to track down their daughter. For me, this made the project all worthwhile.

HG: Who was most helpful to you in the completion of the “Face to Face” exhibit?

DH: The most helpful person during this project was no doubt Libby Ellis, who has worked with numerous philanthropic organizations in the area, fundraising and coordinating events. Libby came on board late into “Face to Face,” but she was just what we needed. She gave the project focus and helped get it out to the public. Libby also raised money, helped find the first gallery, CIG, worked on the “Face to Face” booklet, and gave the project some much needed money. Not only has Libby become a good friend, but she is considered by me to be one of my mentors. I will be forever indebted to Libby. She has taught me a lot.

HG: What kind of reaction have you gotten so far to “Face to Face”?

DH: I have really only heard positive feedback about this project. It has been traveling through Cleveland churches and colleges for the past few months. One of the nice surprises about this was seeing the interest from the college students. I had lots of people come up to me while I was taking the show down and say how moving it was. I believe if you can reach the younger population and get them involved, you can make changes.

HG: What are your current projects?

DH: My current projects . . . I am training with Team in Training for the Leukemia Society to run a marathon and raise money for research to find a cure. This has been a very emotional endeavor. I also just got done shooting portraits of kids with cancer. This is for a project called “Flash for Hope,” which has made these kids feel like stars, if only for a short while. It is a wonderful project, involving 15 to 20 photographers from the Cleveland area. Hopefully, next I will be working on a project dealing with battered women and families. Again, this is a tough topic, but hopefully we can have something positive come out of it.

HG: Is “Face to Face” being exhibited currently?

DH: Not currently, but in mid-October, “Face to Face” goes on exhibit at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland, 91 Public Square.

Editor’s Note: For more information about David Hagen’s “Face to Face,” visit the NEOCH website (www.neoch.org). “Face to Face” is available for display at churches, civic organizations, libraries, and university galleries. NEOCH can schedule a presentation by the “Street Voices” project to kick off the display. The exhibit also features a “Face to Face” booklet with a sampling of the artwork as well as facts and stories about homelessness. To schedule a time to display the artwork, contact Brian Davis at 216-432-0540 ext. 400.

 Copyright Homeless Grapevine Issue #66 September-October 2004 Cleveland, Ohio