Virginia Gilbert’s eyes welled up as she spoke.
“I want to show people out there that people down here are real people,” she said, “and they should be loved.”
Gilbert was one of 21 homeless Fairbanksans who picked up disposable cameras Friday morning at Stone Soup Cafe for a photo project documenting their lives on the streets of Fairbanks. The project, called Through Our Eyes, is an endeavor facilitated by Sarah Manriquez, a photography and film student finishing her Bachelor of Fine Arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her local effort is part of a broader, national program of the same name that tells the stories of homeless populations by using disposable cameras to capture their daily lives on film. The cameras are returned to program facilitators after a week, at which time the film is developed and the images are exhibited. The idea is to tell the stories of the participants’ lives on the streets — to see their lives through their eyes.
Gilbert offered to participate in the program to show not only her life, but the life of her friends, she said.
“They have hardships with addiction, not only being addicted to drugs or alcohol, they’re also addicted to the streets,” Gilbert said.
Manriquez and a crew of about 20 volunteers signed up participants and gave cameras out during breakfast at Stone Soup, the volunteer-run cafe that offers hot meals to the homeless and those in need in Fairbanks. It’s run by the nonprofit organization Bread Line Inc. on Friday afternoon, Manriquez delivered cameras to the youth shelter The Door and to the Fairbanks Native Association for distribution through its street outreach program.
At Stone Soup, the team of volunteers talked to guests during the breakfast hour and asked them if they wanted to participate. If the guests said yes, they were walked through a registration process in which the volunteers explained in detail what the program was, gave out cameras and helped participants sign waivers allowing their images to be shown publicly. Volunteers with expertise in photography also worked with guests on how to take photographs and the specifics of what makes a good photo. One such volunteer was Matt Moberly, a Fairbanks photographer and artist.
“My role here is photography tips and tricks, suggesting things they can shoot and welcoming them in and thanking them for participating,” Moberly said. “It’s something different that I feel Fairbanks needs to see — what is going on with our homeless, what they’re seeing every day. Hopefully, we’ll get images to that effect and just open the public’s eyes a little bit more.”
When the cameras are returned in one week, Manriquez will send them to the Lower 48 for developing, because no facility in Alaska develops disposable camera film. Once developed, the images will come back to Manriquez in both print and digital forms. From there, the works the participants shot will be exhibited in December at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art in Anchorage followed by an exhibit in February at Bear Gallery in the Alaska Centennial Center for the Arts in Fairbanks. The exhibits will also display images and stills from two other projects Manriquez has worked on which examines homelessness in Alaska. A panel of photography experts and jurors will whittle down the best photos for the exhibit as each camera contains 27 images, and no gallery would have space to showcase every photo from every participant. The problem, though, will be getting the cameras back.
Of the 21 cameras Manriquez and the volunteers dispersed Friday at Stone Soup, she said she will be happy to get eight back. She’d consider herself lucky if she got 12 back, she said.
“The return on these cameras for this particular type of project tends to be pretty low,” Manriquez said, “and there’s a lot of things going on that contribute to that. So, we’re lucky if we get half. A little less than half is normal.”
In addition to the exhibits, some of the photos will make their way into a book, which will also be part of the gallery shows. Because the project is designed to raise awareness and work with agencies that help the homeless population, all of the money from sales of photos or books go back to local agencies. In Fairbanks, that includes Stone Soup, The Door, the Fairbanks Community Food Bank, and the Fairbanks Housing and Homeless Coalition.
“I specialize in photography work that focuses on the resilience of the human spirit,” Manriquez said. “When people come and see this show, I want them to see themselves because we all share the human experience. I hope they make a connection, that they see they are not so different that the people they are looking at. These are their neighbors, these are their friends, these are their families. It’s important that we take care of each other in this life.”
Contact Features Editor Gary Black at 459-7504 or on Twitter: @FDNMfeatures.