“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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.