A woman in a floral dress, work gloves, and men’s tennis shoes leans on a walker with her left hand and digs through a trashcan with her right. A man sleeps under a grocery cart overflowing with coats, blankets, a U-Haul rug and a welcome sign while his teddy bear sits on a bench nearby. Faces of laughter, anger, loneliness, and fear. For fifteen years Vincent Lawson photographed the homeless in downtown Mobile and these pictures became the “Our Neighbors” exhibit now hanging in the Marx Library at the University of South Alabama.
The project began in 1997, with a picture of a man sleeping against the old First National Bank building. Chin to his chest, his ribs poked out of an unbuttoned shirt, a white plastic fork hung in his hand. “He was starving to death and died two days later,” Lawson says. “I was on the way to work and saw the police with his body and realized it was the man in the picture. I had just gotten into photography and that picture opened my awareness of homelessness here. It kept drawing me in and I had to see how far these photographs could go. I want the pictures to make people more aware of what they drive or walk by every day.”
Easily recognized by his long dreadlocks often tucked into a knit cap, Lawson’s quiet, calm voice speaks out for the homeless with sympathy and understanding. He was briefly homeless in his twenties, more than 30 years ago. “It was only for a few weeks and a long time ago. I tried to put it behind me as soon as I could and forget about it, but God uses our experiences to teach and help others,” he says.
“It is hard to understand homelessness unless you have lived outside with no walls and no doors. You can’t lie down, sit, or stand in peace without worrying about what will happen next. Possessions are never safe and you have to check out every sound and make sure you are OK. There are some days I am downtown and sense the hurt feelings and the sadness when it seems people don’t care. I try to show that people do care and are trying to help. My own pictures changed from a project about homelessness to a project about helping our neighbors in need.”
Lawson grew up in a spiritual family in Mobile. He found the value of photography by using pictures to learn about relatives he never met. He bought his first camera while serving as an expert small arms instructor in the Air Force, but put it away when he returned home to care for his father who was having heart problems. Starting his own family pulled him back into photography.
“After my daughters were born, I wanted to take better photographs to document their lives,” he says. “I studied masters of photography and learned from local photographers such as Walter Bower, Walter Beckham, and Catt Sirten. I started out as a wedding photographer and shooting brides taught me that timing was the key to a good picture. I needed that same timing taking pictures of the homeless.”
“There is something special about Vincent and his photography,” says Walter Bower, Lawson’s photography teacher at the University of South Alabama. “In his eyes everyone is beautiful and in his skilled photography we see how the world impacts him. He is one of the best photographers I know and his empathy turned the difficulties in his life into positives. He has a power through his images that touches others. He uses photography to show injustice without screaming or shouting.”
For fifteen years, Lawson walked downtown with his Canon and a 24/70 or 70/200 lens, open to what God wanted him to see. Each picture began with a conversation to relax and understand his subject. The first question they asked was, “Why do you want to photograph me?”
“Every story is different and every person has a story to tell, from sleeping on the sidewalk during the day because it is too dangerous to sleep at night, to a group of people with similar addictions huddled together in the woods. I sat on a bench in Cathedral Square next to one of the most dignified men that I have met and he asked ‘What is wrong with me? People walk by me all day long and never speak. I just want them to say hi.’
“It breaks your heart to hear about what people go through,” says Lawson. “One man lives on the streets because he had a nervous breakdown after his wife left him. Another has a crooked nose because he was jumped for the money he made collecting cans. We are all the same, but sometimes others go through so much more than what I go through. Sometimes it breaks their spirit and sometimes they fight through. I don’t know what happens to most of them after I take their pictures because I don’t see them again.”
A photo shoot at McKemie Place, the region’s only shelter for single homeless women, grew into a spa day with professional stylists giving makeovers, haircuts, manicures, and pedicures before Lawson took pictures. “Those photographs gave the women confidence in themselves,” he says. “One woman told me that no one has ever said she was beautiful. I told her that she was a child of God and she has always been beautiful and she believed that. Confidence means so much. If you don’t believe in yourself, you are already defeated no matter what you do.”
The name “Our Neighbors” comes from the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37. The exhibit of seventeen of Lawson’s 10×15 black-and-white photographs opened at the Mobile Arts Council in September 2014, and was later shown at Spring Hill College. The exhibit is in the Marx Library through March and an expanded exhibit opens at the History Museum of Mobile in July. Lawson adds additional pictures as donations help him pay the $75 cost for a matte and frame.
Lawson took pictures of almost sixty people to tell a full story of homelessness, but he knew when it was time to end. “I could have taken a few pictures and been done but if you are doing something right, you have to spend time with it,” he says. “I was told that shooting the homeless is not a popular subject and it wasn’t safe to photograph ‘those people.’ I was turned down on some portraits that would have been great images. I stopped shooting two years ago with a picture that I have kept to myself and have not shown yet. I knew when I took it that it was how this project had to end.”
“ ‘Our Neighbors’ is a powerful show,” says Charlie Smoke, Assistant Director of the Mobile Arts Council. “Vincent doesn’t exploit his subjects but he honors them as people and you feel their integrity. These pictures have opened up conversations about the homeless and I have personally done more to help because of what these pictures made me feel.”
“It helps me to believe that one person can make a difference,” Lawson says. “If you think you are small and can’t make a difference, spend the night with a mosquito. There is no better feeling than to help someone who can’t return that favor to you. God gives you this gift of life every day. He commands us to love each other as he loves us, and we don’t do enough of that. I didn’t put dates on the pictures because the ongoing problem was here five years ago and will be here five years from now. More and more people are carrying luggage with wheels or backpacks with all of their belongings through downtown Mobile.”
Lawson is winning awards and receiving recognition for “Our Neighbors,” but he is a full-time photographer with his lens on other subjects, including ballet and BayFest. He has taught special courses photography classes at USA for eleven years. “I like teaching photography because there is no place for greed or selfishness,” he says. “I teach how to put yourself aside to look with your eyes but see with your mind and heart. It is also important to understand the limits of your camera and what it can’t do.”
His next project might be even more personal. “My brother passed away three years ago from cancer that began in his throat,” he says. “I started photographing him the first day I took him to chemo and photographed him until his last breath. Throughout the whole thing his attitude didn’t change and he lived how he wanted to live. He knew what I was trying to do with the pictures and he wanted to share these experiences because he is not the only person to have to deal with chemo and the effects of cancer. It was a long time before I could look at the pictures and start to put them together.”
Lawson is teaching his daughters, now in their twenties, to improve their lives by helping others. “We have become separated in society and in our families, but if we make each other a priority, we can fix these problems,” he says. “Photography is one way to bring us closer together like it does during disasters. We need to help each other and keep that closeness. If the situation were reversed, you would want someone to help you.”
During my interview with Vincent at Gallery 450, we were interrupted by Courtney Matthews, owner of Lunatix clothing store, who said, “A woman walked into the gallery and asked if there were any pictures by the guy with dreads. She said, ‘He changed my life by taking my picture. When I saw myself in the picture, I haven’t been the same since.’”
Cover and Gallery pictures by Michelle Stancil
Here are some ways to help:
- McKemie Place: www.McKemiePlace.org
- Mobile Rescue Mission: www.mobilerescuemission.org
- The Salvation Army: http://salvationarmyalm.org/coastalalabama/contact-us/
- The Prodisee Pantry: http://www.prodiseepantry.org/
- Ecumenical Ministries: http://www.baldwinemi.org/
- The Lighthouse: http://www.abeacon.org/
- Delta Bike Project: http://www.deltabikeproject.org/
- Delta Dogs: http://mobiledeltadogs.org/about-us
- The Homeless Coalition: http://www.hfal.org/
- Family Promise: http://www.familypromisemobile.org/
- 15 Place: http://www.15place.org/about-us.html
- Bay Area Food Bank: http://www.bayareafoodbank.org/