How one moment changed this photographer's life!
By: Drew Brucker
Now living in the suburbs 40 minutes north of Atlanta, it took some getting used to not living “in the city”. You see, I’m a city boy at heart. Tall buildings, bright lights, and the “fast pace” of it all.
So when I got into photography a little over a year ago, it wasn’t a surprise that I found myself getting pulled toward the streets of downtown Atlanta with a gravitational-like force.
Taking pictures in the burbs just didn’t feel right.
Before I knew it, I was making the drive just about every other weekend, exploring different parts of the downtown Atlanta scene with a totally different perspective - using my camera and more importantly, my eyes in a way that I hadn’t had the patience or clarity to before.
Initially, architecture and general street photography were the appeal. Buildings, alleys, vibes - that sort of thing. Often times wandering around aimlessly from one street to the next, I was constantly in search of things conspicuous enough to make me double-take.
The never/home project
It wasn’t until I crossed paths with a homeless man named Anthony that my focus shifted. He saw me across the street, made his way over, and urged me to stop and photograph him after seeing my camera in-hand.
“Sure, no problem.”, I thought.
I ended up taking photos to satisfy his request, sheepishly at first. But after a few photos, I thought there could be something more here. I started looking for angles and expressions that would reveal a bit more about him...his personality, his story.
Anthony was a very lively kind of guy and the next thing I knew I was in a pretty engaging conversation with him. He told me that he used to perform Michael Jackson acts on the Las Vegas strip.
I wasn’t sure whether to believe him.
But before I had a chance to doubt his claim, he started moonwalking on the spot. And after he followed that up with a self-written rap song he unreluctantly shouted out on the busy sidewalk, I was surprisingly curious.
It was moments later, I found out that Anthony lived outside, underneath the front doors of a city church, where there’s just a large enough overhang to shield some of the outside elements.
Trying to digest that, I was dumbfounded. How could this guy be so positive? His smile and attitude were infectious, impossible to overlook. I couldn’t figure out how his character seemed invincible to the trials he’d encountered.
It was in that moment that I realized that the city had some lost stories to tell by the people most people don’t see.
Weekend after weekend, I was making the drive to the city, picking new areas to explore. Without a doubt, that involved a lot of expense on my end (time, gas, parking, and even spare cash to provide a selling point for permission to get the photos I desired).
It wasn’t until my encounter with Jermaine that it became about something more. It was really the jumping off point for the idea of a fundraiser.
When I came across him on a crowded city street, he was all smiles. But after approaching him, Jermaine didn’t wait long before telling me some of the most incredibly heartbreaking stories I can remember ever hearing.
Recently homeless, he mentioned having two children but no relationship with them because of the mother’s decision to exclude him from their lives. Jermaine was also HIV positive, with descriptive episodes of sexual assault and abuse that he’d suffered through. Add a bipolar diagnosis and the list seemed to carry the weight of an army. But with all that heavy and unwanted baggage, he was somehow (mostly) unfazed by those transgressions.
I noticed he seemed to hang out around this small restaurant (in the background of the photo). When inquiring further, he explained that it was so he could get WiFi for his mobile phone. The restaurant’s WiFi had no password, making it accessible outside the shop by a foot or two, reaching just far enough for him to keep up with the the rest of the world by leaning on the side brick wall exterior.
I felt compelled to help. The “how” of it all seemed fairly obvious - I had a camera and a platform (by way of social media), and individuals like Jermaine had the mystery, the tragedy, and the untold story. By freezing a moment in time with an intimate and vulnerable photo, I could not only drive awareness to their individual story, but also collect donations to give back to the homeless community as a whole. I wanted to step into their world and shine some light on their situations.
In order to do that, I started a GoFundMe page where 100% of the donations would go toward food and clothing for Atlanta’s displaced.
My original goal was to collect a modest $250 or so, collecting donations from a few people in my inner circle. But then social media jumped in.
I surpassed $500 in donations relatively overnight. The new goal then moved to $1,000. A week later, we got there. And in a little over a week, between the page and offline donations, I was able to collect around $1500.
Once we hit that number, my wife and I went on to do five clothing and food drops in different parts of the city. On each occasion, we’d buy a bunch of meals in bulk and pack them in the car. Along with the food, we gathered a lot of our own personal items - clothes, blankets, shoes, canned food...anything that we thought could be useful (and practical).
As you can imagine, there are SO many stories to tell within the larger story, but I’ll tell you one of my favorites.
In the Edgewood area, I crossed paths with a guy named Michael, or Maestro as the other locals called him. He was a veteran, having served as a high ranking officer in the military at one point. You’d imagine that was the hardest part of his life. But here he was living under a bridge, hungry and cold. I couldn’t help but think that this was much more challenging.
Over the next few weeks, I’d meet up with Maestro on several occasions, getting to know him on a deeper level. He trusted me. And I trusted him. So it wasn’t long before he introduced me to others in the area who were without a home, proving to be my liaison with the rest of the community as we walked down some rough parts of the city.
Turns out, he had an estranged daughter in Milwaukee who was to be married in the coming months. The two didn’t talk much anymore but he knew the date was quickly approaching. And I knew he wanted to be at that wedding. Hell, I wanted him to be at that wedding.
I started thinking of ways to make that happen. It wasn’t long before I remembered that my wife and I had some unused skymiles we could use to expense the trip. I think we booked that ticket in less than 10 minutes. It was just beyond photography...beyond anything I had going on personally. This was about him, and me returning the favor by serving as his liaison - getting him back to family and to reconnect.
The toughest part of it all was getting back in touch with him after the fact. He didn’t have a phone, and often wandered around the area so it wasn’t a sure thing I’d catch him. However, I started calling around some of the local shops, and one in particular, that I remember him mentioning as a place that he made phone calls occasionally.
Talking with the owner, I mentioned the urgency of having Maestro call me the next time he saw him. Three days later, I got the call.
Bringing it full circle, Maestro took that trip; he got that cell phone. Him and his daughter reconnected. He met some of his grandchildren for the first time. You can’t put price tags on that.
A new perspective
I’d never talked to homeless folks before. Never went out of my way to strike up conversations with strangers before. Never organized a fundraiser before. And definitely never bought plane tickets for someone I met just weeks earlier before.
And that’s essentially the beauty of it. Photography and the stories being told through my lens essentially made that happen.
I decided at that point if I was going to be doing photography, it wasn't going to be typical street photography. It was going to be something more intimate and compassionate. It was about meeting people, understanding them, and helping out where I could.
Up until now, these stories (just a few of many) have never been told. And sometimes that’s because you’re waiting for someone to ask you.
You can find more of Drew’s work here. https://www.instagram.com/dcbruck