05/18/2024


Earlier this winter, I was exploring an abandoned theater in Newark, NJ. After wandering down a long dilapidated hallway, I saw a man watching me from behind a pole to the left of the theater’s stage. His body was obstructed by the pole, but I could see his hands gripping it tightly, as he leaned his head around to watch what I was doing. 

I remember being startled when our eyes met, but for some reason I was calm and approached him to talk. In my personal life, I have always been incredibly reserved and cautious; a very worried and measured kid. But my camera gives me a permission to inhabit an extroverted and courageous personality that I normally don’t have access to. 

When I introduced myself, he extended his his hand for me to shake, but it was covered in a thick black dust so I held mine back. He apologized, and explained that he had spent the past three months living in a small room in this abandoned building; burning trash to keep warm. The black dust on his hands was the result of him tending to the fire. After our initial encounter he put a baseball bat down that I didn’t realize he had been holding. He said that he was worried that he would have had to use it because he’d previously been robbed. He told me that he was a recent immigrant from Mexico, and he regretted coming. He had come to work, but here there was none. Due to an increase in immigration this year, the usual construction and day labor jobs that don’t require government identification are completely saturated. 

Just a few days prior, I had finished reading “Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, and I was struck by the similarity of this mans journey, to that of the westward migrants in Steinbecks tale. The migrants, who during the Great Depression also left their homes with hopes of a better life; only to find a reality worse than they had ever imagined. 

I recently met Steph in a park and asked to make a portrait of her. After talking a while, she revealed that she is a prostitute, and uses Craigslist to find clients. She had many horror stories of mentally ill men and all of their strange requests and perverse sexual kinks. But amidst the outward darkness that she wore, there was a lucidity to the way she operated. Often, people in dark situations have a dissociative quality that makes them difficult to connect with. Their mind disassociates from reality to protect them. But Steph was sharp and fully aware of her situation, owning every detail. I told her that her honesty surprised me, and she figured it was from years of forced self reflection. When she was younger she spent two years in a government mental asylum because as a young girl she had run a popular fan blog for the Columbine school shooters. 

The pain she carried reminded me of Jim, who I met a few months ago. I was biking the old train tracks underneath an overpass in Jersey City. He saw me from afar and rode his bike right up to me, studying me curiously. We spoke briefly just to feel each other out. I told him that I was out wandering looking for pictures, and he told me that he lived here under the bridge. I began to ask more questions and he suggested that we get off of our bikes and sit around a makeshift table that sat about twenty yards away. The sharp mid day autumn light split the table in two. He chose the side that the sun was hitting and suggested that I avoid the cloth chair that sat opposite to his because it could have bed bugs on it. As we talked further he pulled out a crack pipe and began to smoke. After a few puffs, his demeanor changed and he grew increasingly anxious. He told me that he had just completed his fourth month of being homeless. Which started the week after his teenage daughter died. She overdosed, and was his only child. I noticed the Marines patch on his sweatshirt and asked him if he was a veteran. He confirmed, and said that he had seen combat action in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he had been dishonorably discharged. He said, “when I was stationed in the Middle East my wife was battling stage four cancer. She was due to have a risky brain surgery to remove a tumor and I begged my sergeant to let me go home and be with her. He said no, so I went ahead and beat the shit out of that mother fucker. I continued to beat him after he went unconscious and was lucky I didn’t kill him.” He was fired from his job, and his wife didn’t survive the surgery.


                    

S/OIL maquette #2
8x10
46 Pages
21 Photographs