In 2006, Michael O’Brien, a veteran photojournalist who’s shot for Life, National Geographic, Texas Monthly and many other publications, took on a different kind of assignment.
An Austin-based ministry called Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which aids the homeless, was looking for a photographer to document the people it served. O’Brien was looking for something to do. The changing media landscape had made life as a freelance photographer increasingly difficult. As O’Brien writes in the introduction to the new book Hard Ground (University of Texas Press, $40, 184 pages), “Newspapers were dying, magazines struggling in earnest. There were fewer assignments. My career was changing. I was looking for a way to stay busy.”
He began going to the Mission: Possible! Community Center in East Austin every Tuesday to photograph the homeless people who came in for a free meal and a place to sleep. What started as an effort to stay busy quickly grew into much more. O’Brien spent the next three years photographing and documenting the stories of homeless people in Austin.
In Hard Ground, O’Brien’s haunting photographs of the homeless are paired with poetry by musician Tom Waits. To make his photographs, O’Brien used an old view camera. “This is a large, bulky camera that sits atop a tripod … a view camera is slow and deliberate,” he writes in the book’s introduction. With a view camera, the subject must remain completely still or the photo will be out of focus. O’Brien also employed a black-and-white Polaroid film called Type 55, which produces a negative and print at the same time. When O’Brien took his photos, he kept the negative and handed the print to his subject.
“‘Taking a photograph’ is a common expression, and indeed, the subject is giving something away,” O’Brien writes. “[I]n this case, each subject received something tangible—a print that bore testament to a life. It is a safe encounter and it is a relationship, however brief …
“I felt a kinship with the people I was photographing … I wasn’t close to living on the street. But I was uprooted by the industry’s change; I, too, was unsettled, floundering, often unemployed, trying to find a way to regain my balance and place. This project, and these subjects, gave me back my anchor.”
Gary Fauries, 49
“I’ve been in Austin since Katrina. My family lost its home in the hurricane. I was there when the hurricane hit. The whole time I knew God was there with His arms around me. It was devastating, but not frightening. I hopped a freight train from Houston to get to Austin. I am fighting to get my Social Security. My health has not been too good, but it’s been my own fault. Being homeless has made me appreciate people a lot more. Now I know all people should be treated with respect.”
Michael Alexander, 47 Shirley Erskins, 54
SHIRLEY: “I lost my eye in a car wreck riding in a Ford pickup truck in 1997. The truck I was riding in hit a tree going 95 mph. My eyeball came out of the socket and I was dead on arrival at the hospital. I told my mother not to always get me out of trouble, but to let me lie down in it. Mother passed away while I was in prison. I got caught forging checks.”
MICHAEL: “We met three years ago. I like the way she looked. We’ve stuck together like two peas in a pod. Shirley is my sister, my mother, everything. All my life, I’ve liked older women.”
Lavonne Oxner, 39 Kyle Oxner, 9
“I’ve lived in Austin for 11 years to be closer to my mom who is disabled. I had to give up possession of the house I lived in for six years. The landlord broke the lease. My mom had a stroke five months ago. She was released into my care. Since August we have been at the Salvation Army shelter. I just signed papers to have my mother put into a nursing home.”
Connie Thompson, 44
“I got a TV, but I need a new TV. I got a boyfriend named Mike. He doesn’t have a job. I like to sit down and watch TV—I watch Christian services and good movies … like shoot-the-gun movies. I don’t get scared as long as my boyfriend is with me.”
Travis Rushing, 39
“I have Acromegalia, a growth hormone disorder. The same as Andre the Giant. I’ve had two heart attacks and I’ve just had bypass surgery. I’m disabled so I don’t work. I sleep under the interstate at seventh Street. I just have a sleeping bag and a blanket. I plan to get a ticket on Amtrak and get out of town. Wherever I go my disability check follows.”
William Loar, 51
“I lost my leg in a knee replacement operation 15 years ago. I’ve been homeless almost as long. I’m on two different pain meds and the street people try to steal them from me. I dropped out of Austin High in the 11th grade when my father passed away. I came from a good family but my mother got breast cancer and died. I’d love to be off the streets with a place of my own. Even with only one leg, I get around a whole lot—I can bathe myself and dress myself. My dream is to get a prosthesis for my left leg.”