Photography: Up Close With New York’s Homeless Youth

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“Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose. 

So the bible says, and it still is news… 

God bless the child who’s got his own.”

So sang Billie Holiday in the jazz hymn “God Bless the Child,” that she co-wrote with Arthur Herzog, Jr. Those words come to mind while taking in images from See Me: Picturing New York City’s Homeless Youth, a photo-book project by the Reciprocity Foundation and photographer Alex Fradkin to celebrate the foundation’s ten years of advocacy on behalf of homeless youth. 

See Me’s goal is for the camera to capture the teens as they want to be seen, shorn of the misconceptions and preconceptions often projected unto them. In doing that, it co-mingles some of the goals and possibilities of art, period: challenging the audience to re-think something of what they think they know of the world; allowing subjects (which includes not only the bodies in front of the camera, but their counterparts across the lens) to imagine themselves into existence on their own terms. What makes Fradkin’s photography so powerful is the simplicity of the wishes his camera captures, the dreams of the ordinary that his subjects present as their deepest desire.

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In “God Bless the Child,” Holiday and Herzog distilled universal truth into timeless philosophical commentary that’s especially relevant today. Statistics on homeless youth in this country are staggering. Figures from Safe Horizon, described on their website as “the nation’s leading victim assistance organization,” break down as follows:

  • Approximately 1.7 million young people call the streets home every year.
  • Nearly 20,000 homeless people 24 years old and younger live in New York City.
  • Children under 18 accounted for 39% of the homeless population. Of that number, approximately 42% were younger than age 5.
  • Approximately 40% of homeless youth identify as LGBT.
  • Every year, approximately 5,000 homeless young people will die because of assault, illness, or suicide while trying to survive.

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It’s easy to be overwhelmed by these numbers, especially in a political moment such as ours, where the fear-based scarcity approach to resources encourages a dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself mentality. The true goal of See Me isn’t just for readers to see the book’s subjects as they want to be seen, but hopefully for us all to recognize larger, more generous definitions of community, and the responsibilities therein.

An exhibition and limited-edition printing of See Me, featuring text by author and social activist Tag Tagore, will launch in May, with proceeds to benefit Reciprocity.

 


Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New York Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.