by Terry Messman
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen Dong Lin first began taking his evocative photographs of how poor people live and die on the streets of America, he did not speak English. A citizen of China, he was born in Beijing and came to America 10 years ago with no money, scant job prospects and without even a decent camera. He was very nearly homeless himself.
But he somehow succeeded in producing an eye-opening book of photojournalism entitled One American Reality. Despite its often unbearably sad subject matter, Dong Lin’s book is one of the most beautiful documentaries of street life and homelessness to date.
His lack of English may have given a more clear-eyed, truthful immediacy to his portraits of homeless Americans because he was unable to ask his subjects to pose or cooperate in any way. And his shaky economic status certainly brought him closer to the reality of homelessness.
“When I came to this country, I was one step from being homeless myself,” Dong Lin explained. “Very struggling, no English, no job. I was very close to homelessness. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll use my camera to get close to the homeless people.’ ”
America has always treated its poor as pariahs to be shunned. Many spend a lifetime learning to look away, carefully putting on blinders to escape seeing people on the streets in desperate and wretched conditions. It may take the unclouded gaze of an outsider — one who is literally a stranger in a strange land — to see past our protective blinders.
In the captivating, black-and-white photographs of Dong Lin, we can no longer look away. Transfixed by his striking images, we cannot help but see a disturbing gulf between wealth and poverty existing side by side in our society.
Two well-dressed men in business suits stroll through downtown San Francisco, pausing for a mere heartbeat to glance complacently at a homeless man sleeping under a thin blanket in a doorway only a few feet away, lying on the same pavement as their polished shoes.
The effect is stunning, unnerving. With a sinking feeling, we suddenly recognize the biblical Lazarus in our midst. But now, the poor beggar asking for crumbs at the rich man’s gate is not just being ignored in a timeless parable — his hunger and poverty are going unnoticed here, now, in our city, at our very feet. This is our parable; this is about us. The viewer can either pass on unseeing, as the two businessmen are about to do, as our entire society does, or openly confront the desolate poverty of Lazarus transported to a San Francisco sidewalk in our own time.
Dong Lin’s photos show us that poverty has many faces in America. Here, a man comfortably eats in a cafe, while right outside the window a homeless youth holds up a sign asking for help. There, an anonymous woman, her hat pulled down so low she is nearly faceless, rummages for food in a garbage can, unseen by the bustling crowd around her.
Down the street, a barefoot, homeless man sleeps obliviously in a shopping cart. The vehicle used to carry a street person’s few possessions, or to haul cast-off bottles to the recyclers, is now the last refuge for a person cast off by a consumer society that has no need for its surplus poor.
The haunting silence of some of Dong Lin’s images are disquieting in the extreme if one lingers on their implications. A panhandler in San Francisco mutely holds out a cup, eyes silently pleading, as he stands directly beneath a benevolent-looking, life-sized mannequin of Santa in Macy’s large display window. The Macy’s window bears the unsettling legend, “FAREWELL SALE.”
Too many images and associations enter the mind all at once: A blind, lifeless Santa (saint) that can no longer see the suffering of the homeless poor right beneath his eyes, a saint imprisoned behind Macy’s cold, gaudy windows…
The immeasurable gap between the needy man left alone on the street, and the overabundance of wealth and consumer goods safely locked behind the sterile glass windows, a marketplace for the affluent that has shut its doors and sealed its windows in the face of the poor…
A symbolic warning of what the “farewell sale” looks like for an unjust and avaricious empire that traded in the Christmas spirit of giving to the poor for the spirit of materialism and greed…
Born in Beijing, China, Dong Lin seems to have been ordained by destiny to travel thousands of miles from his birthplace to open the eyes of U.S. citizens to the vast landscape of poverty where millions of American citizens live in exile. Sociologist Michael Harrington coined the phrase, “The Other America,” to describe this largely unseen land of poverty and despair, a country so distant and alien that many U.S. citizens never seem to notice it at all.
Yet, as revealed by Dong Lin’s camera, this unseen country is as near as the couple bedded down on a sidewalk only a few feet away from passers-by, or the impoverished man in a wheelchair grimly enduring an endless cold night in front of a downtown office building.
In one of the most chilling images in the book, the Other America claims its victim on an ordinary San Francisco sidewalk on a routine sunny day when a policeman stops to nudge awake a homeless man — only to find he is already dead, just another accident statistic.
Without Dong Lin’s camera, the faceless fatalities in our midst are almost never seen, because they live and die in a faraway place: the Other America.
Even the way the photos are ordered in the book can offer startling contrasts. On one page, a long line of homeless people sleep on park benches; on the next, a row of affluent-looking women in swimsuits languidly soak up sun in a pleasant park.
A man looking downcast in a ragged coat stands directly beneath a “Banana Republic” billboard, seemingly bowed under by the sheer weight of the huge advertisement of careless affluence that seems to press down on his head.
An African-American man panhandles under the Bank of America sign, speaking volumes about the distribution of wealth in America. Then you look once more at the picture and realize that the word “Bank” has been left out of camera range, and you begin to see that the man below has been likewise left out of the bank, denied entrance to the global reach of the Bank of America.
But Dong Lin, of course, does not intend to spell out such explicit or implicit messages with his camera; or, if he does, he isn’t telling. The message is in the eyes of the beholder. He carefully avoids ascribing any sociopolitical interpretation to his work. He only puts the location and time on his photos, without any captions, letting the image speak for itself.
“It is up to the readers to supply the interpretation,” he told Street Spirit. “The image speaks for itself and says different things to different people.”
He does not believe in “composing” his photographs, and doesn’t even tell his subjects they will be photographed because that can lead to a kind of self-conscious posing that subtly changes the truth of their lives. He takes pictures quickly and quietly, using a small Leica camera to snap photos of people unaware they are being observed.
Because Dong Lin didn’t speak English when he began work on his book, he couldn’t go up to people on the streets and ask them to cooperate in a good cause. “No, I couldn’t ask them,” he said. “And if you do that, it changes their faces and their behavior. I hate that. I took great pains to keep people from realizing I had a camera, because if they see it, they change.”
Dong Lin took pictures for Chinese newspapers and magazines before coming to America. After arriving, he worked as a busboy in restaurants, and finally saved enough to buy his Leica camera. Several news photographers were so impressed by his work that they supported his documentary project by giving him free film and access to darkrooms.
When One American Reality was published by Cypress Press in 1996, Sam Winch, reviewer for News Photographer, a prominent photography magazine, wrote that Dong Lin’s “beautifully stark photographs of the ugly underbelly of American street life remind me of the best work of Robert Frank and Diane Arbus… I was awe-struck at the radiant luminescence of these images.”
Acclaimed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson sent a handwritten note of approval to Dong Lin: “I have a feeling that the pulsing of your heart is synchronized with your camera.” This praise meant a great deal to Dong Lin because Cartier-Bresson, who photographed scenes of China in the 1940s and ‘50s, has been a key inspiration. “His work influenced me a lot,” Dong said. “He caught the moment; he never posed people.”
Orville Schell, dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California in Berkeley, wrote in his introduction to Lin’s book: “What makes this book of photographs by Dong Lin so pathbreaking is not only the distinctive and artistic quality of his images, but that Dong is really the first serious Chinese photographer of his generation to approach America with the same kind of commitment and creativity that marks those Westerners who have focused on China for so long. In this sense he is truly in the vanguard.”
In an interview with Street Spirit, Dong Lin explained that his work is meant to show the reality of American poverty to Chinese citizens as well.
“Everybody thinks in China that America is a rich and beautiful country, very modern,” he said. “Chinese media and advertising paint this picture and the very traditional Chinese also have this thing about America, that you can find your gold in America. When I came here, I saw the homeless people — you know, the dark side — so I tried to present them and show the Chinese what another side of America looks like. I want to tell them, ‘They’re the same as you in America. Don’t be jealous. Don’t be mad.’
“America has a rich class now, very rich. And they have a poor class, and they have the homeless too. And the government doesn’t want people to touch them.”
Dong Lin said he relished the freedom to walk anywhere in American cities unhindered and take photographs even of ugly social realities without being censored by the government, a freedom he said does not exist in China.
Dong Lin became a staff photographer for the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and traveled the globe throwing light on other hidden worlds. A recent expedition on behalf of the Academy resulted in gorgeous color photos of the denizens of Madagascar’s rainforests — lemurs, chameleons, giraffe beetles, jumping spiders, scarab beetles, and a multi-headed, hunched-up bundle of white-throated birds called oxylabes.
Christiaan Klieger, his colleague at the Academy of Sciences, said, “What Dong Lin has done is document our urban life in a way we probably couldn’t. We would be over-studied in trying to capture that. I think it’s really special in that sense. Like a true artist, his work has many levels, depending on the particular perspective of the person viewing it. It has deep meaning.”
Dong Lin reveals the human face of people rejected and persecuted as social outcasts. His gift to us is to pierce the veil that shrouds the silent suffering of nameless, faceless people on our streets. When I look at these images of all those who have been rejected by our society, I think of another one, born homeless, who was also “destined to be a sign that is rejected — and a sword will pierce your own soul too — so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare.” (Luke 2:35)
A sword will pierce your own soul too…
What these images reveal are the daily crucifixions all around us, as countless people made in the image of God are abandoned to the agony of poverty. Dong Lin has laid bare the secrets of an empire.