Fine-art photographer Ed Freeman didn't think of himself as an activist. His images, whether they're underwater nudes or shots of ramshackle buildings against barren landscapes, are the kind of pieces meant to be hung on walls in homes. With his latest series, though, Freeman's work has taken a different turn. For the past year and a half, the Chinatown-based photographer has been training his lens on homeless people living in Los Angeles.
Freeman's photos are still in the fine-art realm. These are portraits as opposed to documentary work, and they're intended to be collected in a coffee-table book called I Am Somebody: Portraits of Homelessness, which is nearing the end of its crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter.
Recent figures show that the number of homeless individuals has continued to rise both in Los Angeles County and within the city limits. Last March, Measure H passed a county vote; it will use a sales tax increase to fund homeless services. Still, that doesn't mean an end to homelessness is in sight.
Homelessness is complicated. There isn't one reason why there are so many people living on the streets of Los Angeles. Yet we look at homeless in terms of numbers and general solutions that may not fit every person who makes up the homeless population.
Freeman himself doesn't pretend to have an answer for solving the crisis. “It's an enormously complicated problem,” he says, “but the first thing that needs to be done is to recognize people that are living on the streets as worthwhile, genuine human beings.”
He adds, “They're not statistics. They're not aliens. They're not scary.”
That's where Freeman's photography skills come into play. On his Facebook page, he has posted some shots from his series. There's Joe, an avid reader who hangs out near Union Station. There are photos of people from the tent community on South Beaudry, an older couple, three cousins in their 20s, a veteran who suffers from PTSD.
Many years ago, Freeman himself was briefly homeless. He was 21 and left school to hitchhike in the United States and Mexico. For a few weeks, he slept in whatever place he could find, sometimes under cars or in abandoned buildings. “At that time, it was an adventure. I was 21 and stoned and thought this was cool,” he says, adding that the word “homeless” wasn't in use then. “I look back now and think, yeah, I was homeless. I didn't know it at the time. It was rough, eating out of dumpsters and stuff like that.”
Ultimately, Freeman became a folk musician and then a record producer whose credits include Don McLean's 1971 hit single “American Pie.”
“I sort of got stuck being a record producer because that was a big success and people want you to keep doing it,” Freeman says. “I was not very happy doing it because I was always working on somebody else's project, not my own.”
Freeman's interests in music and photography go back to his childhood. He started playing music — the violin, specifically — when he was 6. Later on, he gravitated toward classical guitar and Elizabethan lute.
When Freeman was 10, he learned photography. So when music was creatively unfulfilling, he picked up his camera and found work shooting everything from headshots to stock photography before he gravitated toward fine-art photography.
He's been working on the project off and on between his other work, and the photos of homeless people have become something of a passion project for Freeman. It's not as commercial as his other work, but there's a purpose to it.
In the process of photographing the homeless series, Freeman has met people living outdoors across the city. Their stories aren't the same, but he sees some common issues. “They might know people in the tent next door or other people who are homeless, but they don't have connections with people who are more integrated into society,” he says. He talks about young people who aged out of the foster care system or were kicked out of their homes, people who immigrated to the United States and people who, for whatever reason, aren't in contact with their families.
The project can be intense. “I've heard stories that will just break your heart,” Freeman says. But, through photography, he's bringing some of those stories to light.
“I think most people's reaction to homeless people is to ignore them, pretend that they don't exist. There's a certain element of fear involved,” Freeman says. “You can't imagine yourself having a relationship with them.”
Even if the photographer can't solve homelessness, he can help change the way people in Los Angeles view homeless people. Freeman didn't start out as an activist, but that's changing. “I'm doing what I can do,” he says, “and what I do is take pictures.”