Admired for his close-up head shots of celebrities and influential leaders that sparked a different take on portrait photography since the late 1990s, Martin Schoeller also photographs lesser-known people: He documented identical twins in a book he published in 2012, and also set up a working studio on a sidewalk on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, stopping passersby for impromptu portraits.
This time, equipped with his trademark Kino fluorescent tube lighting, he positioned himself on the corner of Sycamore and Romaine streets in Downtown Los Angeles, where the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition (GWHFC) serves fresh hot dinners to the homeless and needy all year around.
“I started this whole project with the idea of bringing awareness, [and] with the idea of giving homeless people a face and a voice,” Schoeller says. “We see homeless people or perceive them every day, but we don’t really meet any of them ever in our daily interactions. My goal was to basically have them step forward and talk about their life and explain why they are homeless.”
Beyond the portraits themselves is a greater project inspired by the commitment of Schoeller’s friends and volunteers who have worked at GWHFC since its inception: to raise $200,000 as a down payment on a permanent commercial lot for the coalition to serve their clients in a welcoming structure, rather than on a street corner, which often causes complaints from neighbors and public officials.
And to reach more people, Schoeller chose Instagram, a platform he had ignored until then. “That’s a good way to use Instagram,” he says. “To give people a voice who don’t have a voice on Instagram.
According to a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report published in November 2015, the number of homeless in the United States tallies to more than 500,000, the largest percentage of whom (63.7 percent) live in California.
In addition to the images, which populate Schoeller’s Instagram feed and can be also viewed on GWHFC’s one, and under the hashtag #SycamoreandRomaine, the photographer has captioned the pictures with excerpts from the brief interviews he conducted while photographing his subjects, painful testimonies of the hardships they suffered, and poignant reminders of what is often behind the despair we witness.
Martin Schoeller is an award-winning portrait photographer based in New York City.