Featured Image © Peter Yang, Courtesy of Art Start
As our economy stutter steps and hints toward improvement, there are still many people who are struggling to get back on their feet. It can be especially difficult in a city like New York for homeless families to stay together through these times. Here to remind us that there are still those in need in our city, photographer Tom Mckenzie brings our attention to the Art Start Family Portrait Project. Through the organization, he meets and photographs homeless families–giving them in the process a sense of normalcy and a positive image of themselves. In fornt of his camera, they are not homeless, but a family sitting for a portrait.
An upcoming show and auction are next. According to Art Start, “the gallery exhibition and sales of printed materials will fundraise for Art Start’s Homeless Youth Outreach Programming, consisting of creative arts workshops that take place four nights per week inside partnering New York City homeless shelters and adolescent group homes with youth ages 5-20 years old.” Art Start shows us how photography can be used in a compassionate and socially conscious way–it is often the task of artists to represent and give a voice to those who are in need. For Tom Mckenzie, Art Start was a natural outlet.
How did you initially get involved in this project?
I make frequent trips to the city for work and what have you, and Natalie Brasington, great friend and photographer herself, is one of the producers of the project and asked if I would be interested in shooting. Of course I was interested–we, photographers, all help each other when we can.
What attracted you to the subject of homeless families in New York City?
I don’t think is was the subject per se as much as the chance to do something I love doing for someone who normally would not have the means.
Why is it increasingly important to tell the stories of struggle that these families go through today?
Awareness. Try to change perceptions–I think there are preconceived ideas and stereotypes about homelessness. There is what I was directly exposed to–the guy on the corner begging, the canners, etc.–but there is so much more that I was not aware of, like these families. I was never exposed to them, therefore I did not know. It hits home as I have five kids of my own. There was a family who had their pictures made; they were super nice and were very kind and thankful, but they would not allow use of the portraits because the father was very traditional and was ashamed that people in the old neighborhood would see and recognize them.
You present a lot of success stories for these families. Was it always a goal of yours to show the ways in which the system can actually work to the advantage of the homeless at times?
I think it was one of the goals of the project, more so then mine. I truly wanted to make a portraits that the families would enjoy, and the rest is a plus. I was just a player in the overall scheme of things. Johanna De Los Santos, Art Start Executive Director, Hannah Immerman, Art Start Program Director, Homeless Youth Outreach, and Natalie Brasington, Art Start Board member, are the ones who do a great deal of work and outreach.
There are a lot of different types of families in the project. How can this help us change the definition of what exactly it means to be family?
Johanna states it best “Home” is not four walls and a door; “Home” is built through love, passion and resiliency as a family unit. These families are not “home” less. They are house-less; they may be struggling but they have what everyone ultimately wants–an unconditional love that can’t be diminished by even the most trying of circumstances.”
What was your experience collaborating with other photographers on the project?
Super, it is one of my favorite things. All the photographers didn’t shoot the same same day or location, but I am sure it was the same where ever. We helped each other out and had a great time doing it–it was truly a huge team effort. (I hope to mention all team members, Art Start people, photogs, make up, Fast Ashley’s equipment, White house Custom Color prints and Highline loft)
What is it about photography that gives these stories impact?
A photo is worth a 1000 words… Natalie sums it up nicely: “Photography is a universal language and everyone should have the experience of celebrating that which matters most in life with a family portrait. My hope is that all of the families in this project look at these images and feel a sense of pride in their strength and the love they have for one another. They collaborated with these wonderful photographers and stylists to create an image of their family that reflects all that makes them truly beautiful.”
Beyond awareness, what are some ways that we can lend a helping hand to fellow New Yorkers in need?
For a start come to the show on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 , give art start a like on Facebook and see what happens there.
The show’s Opening Reception is on Thursday, December 19th, 2013 6-10 PM at The Highline Loft in the West Chelsea Arts Building, 508 West 26th Street, 5th Floor, NYC.