Cool Cat by Donald Edwards

“The cameras are disposable but the people behind them are not,” explained Reverend Jason Williamson as he chatted with us via phone from his parish, the Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church, in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Williamson was discussing his Through Your Eyes photo project that recently put 100 disposable Fujifilm cameras into the hands of people living on the city streets, in local shelters or otherwise affected by homelessness.

Tasked with capturing “what matters most to them,” their images, some 700 of them currently on display at the Chapman Cultural Center through July, range from pics of a best friend, to a snow cone on a hot day, to a beloved teddy bear. Williamson, who was a corporate director of digital advertising for 10 years before becoming a pastor, hopes the project will humanize the area’s 600 homeless citizens, allowing viewers to see their passions, families, makeshift homes, and inner lives.

"I took it for the simple fact that if he saw his own own picture, he’d have to stay out of trouble."
Trouble Free by Donald Edwards
“I love that white dress. It reminded me of when my sister got married.”
Beautiful Dress by Bobbie Nesbitt

Williamson found inspiration in a similar project in the United Kingdom, a London coffee shop and community center called Cafe Art, where “homelessness, great art and coffee meet.” Each year the organization hosts a homeless-driven photography project called MyLondon, where citizen-artists capture and showcase their daily lives. A former student of photography who frequently employs the practice in his missionary work, Williamson was moved to replicate the London project in Spartanburg—a city of just over 37,000. After a grassroots marketing campaign at local gathering places and homeless shelters, he purchased and distributed the cameras with only one caveat: shoot what you see and what you love.

“We had a prayer time out back at the mission one night and I came up with the idea for the photo. We are all family here. I don’t see colors or nationalities; we are all equal. And the love. The love is good.”
The Love is Good by Annette Barnett
“She’s my world. She’s everything. And she’s how I got through a dismal situation. She kept me going when I didn’t necessarily think I should.”
The Light of my Daughter by David Minch
“I knew her from another shelter. I was going to help her get her clothes out and thought I’d take her picture first. I was excited to have a friend here, but I felt bad because she didn’t have a choice but to come to the shelter.”
Moving In by Mildred Johnson

Returning the cameras after five days of unfettered creativity, the photographers were enrolled into a contest—the winner to be announced July 29th—and treated to a meal and participation gift.

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According to Williamson, “Unlike any project before, the homeless of Spartanburg will have an integral hand in helping expose the issue of homelessness rather than merely being the problem that is trying to be solved.”

“I took this photo because I thought she was a nice young lady. I think it’s very cool. I want other people to know that they can take the same pictures, do something interesting."
Young Lady by Darrell Hawkins

“We wanted to give some encouragement and share hope with them,” he continued. “During the week we gave them a shirt that had the word ‘photographer’ on the back so that they could experience a different title other than just ‘homeless’. And they did experience the encouragement and the satisfaction that comes with creating art—something that both gives you a voice and that other people can look at and enjoy.”

I was trying to take pictures of things I see on a daily basis and I really value him. It was a gift. Prayer is a big part of my life. He has a button that says, ‘now I lay me down to sleep,’ when you push it. I know my prayers are being answered. Anything outside of God’s will isn’t going to work anyway.”
Prayer Bear by Leslie Broome

The over 700 submitted works were purposefully kept anonymous in order to be judged solely on color, composition, storytelling and subject matter, just like any photo competition. After narrowing down the entries to just 20 finalists, Williamson matched the winners with their photographers, and the community was invited to vote on their favorites.

“My friend was having a problem and was on the phone, I just happened to catch it. We’re here at the shelter, but it ain’t the end. We’re just going through it. We’ve got a purpose, you just have to go for it and it will come for you.”
The Struggle by Allen Johnson

“I wanted to put the camera in the hands of these people and really see what they thought. See what was important to them,” explained Williamson. Asked whether his pastoral work informs his love of photography, Williamson replied. “I think photography is definitely a form of worship. You take a picture of something [you love] and save it and memorialize it and appreciate those things. Seeing a photo, something from these people’s lives, I think it draws a level of compassion to that group that we might not necessarily know that much about.”

“I have a lot of respect for older people and veterans. He and I spend time together and eat turkey neck bones. He’s got a creek outside his house that I like to spend time at. We have the freedoms today because of people like him. He didn’t have a choice but to be in the military and I respect his efforts and life.”
Our Freedom to be Homeless Fell Upon These Shoulders by Stephanie Farmer
“He was sitting under a tree in the shade and I saw the light coming in from behind him. He was in a good posture. The pictures says that you can just relax and be free.”
Doug by Rumchanh Prak

As a result of this contest, he said, some photographers have gotten offers of employment, shelter, and financial assistance. In one special case, a grandmother was reunited with a grandson she had lost contact with.

“I see her all the time and find her very interesting. I’ve spent time walking and talking with her. I want to know more about her. I want to know why she does the things she does and how she lives.”
Happy As I Can Be by Robert Aldridge

“Through Our Eyes is bigger than a social experiment,” said Williamson. “It's greater than an art piece. It's more important than an outreach. This project is a lifeline.”

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Laura Feinstein is the Head of Social Stories at Fusion. Formerly, she held staff roles as the East Coast Editor of GOOD Magazine and the EIC of The Creators Project at VICE, and has contributed to The Guardian, T/The New York Times, Paper Magazine and many others. She specializes in the niche, the esoteric and the un-boring.