It all started when I was doing exactly what I didn’t want to do.

Charged with going to Ocean Beach and documenting homeless life for this story, I knew I had a challenge ahead of me.

I knew exactly what kind of pictures I didn’t want to take. The most insensitive way I could have approached the story would be to stand back with a long lens and take pictures of people who appear to be homeless.

It’s presumptuous, first of all, to label someone as homeless solely by how they look. But beyond that, a person who is homeless doesn’t have the benefit of avoiding cameras by taking to the refuge of their homes — they live on the streets. While it would be perfectly legal for me to stand back and photograph them from a distance — with no knowledge of who they are or their situation is — at least in my mind it constitutes an invasion of their privacy.

But that’s what I was doing. After spotting two folks walking with sleeping bags, backpacks and dogs, I assumed they were homeless and snapped off the above frame. I sighed and let my camera down, knowing that what I was doing was worthless. I would never be satisfied with the frames I was making and without ever talking to the people in the image, I would have no way to know for sure that they were in fact homeless.

It’s a horrible feeling as a photojournalist when you feel yourself doing something simply because it’s easy. It’s usually around this time when I start having debates in my head. I call myself names. I tell myself I’ll never make it. I think about how all my training and work are worthless if I don’t start working harder to talk to people and make intimate images.

The famous photographer Joe Mcnally summed this feeling up the other day in a blog post. In discussing a pair of hands Mcnally had seen on the street, he writes:

I knew it in a heartbeat. It was a pair of hands that I needed to photograph, and if I shut off the adrenaline pump, got lazy and slid into the comfort of the rental car and closed my eyes and surrendered to the latte, I would curse myself over and over again for being a feckless, useless photographer.

While standing there cursing myself, I looked into the back of my camera and saw the other man on the left of the frame. He looked fascinating. His kaleidoscopic pants and hat, his big white sunglasses, the guitar case on his back — it all drew me to him. So I went and talked to him.

His name is Aja. A subdued 40-something who most recently lived in Seattle, Aja considers himself more of a gypsy than a “homeless person.” He’s mild-mannered and approachable. He’s understanding of the problems that stem from people living on the streets. He and I even sat for a while and played guitar together.

None of this would have happened if I hadn’t at one point sucked it up and introduced myself to him and tried to get to know him. By breaking the ice and chatting with him for a while, he became more comfortable around me and more willing for me to take photos.

He could have easily told me to shove off and, to be sure, he took some convincing and warming up to before he let me take his picture. But, ultimately, by letting me in to capture a few moments of his life, he helped me to round out my photographic coverage of Ocean Beach. He let me tell the story of a gypsy — a wanderer who’s happy enough to live in the streets and who largely keeps to himself and enjoys the freedoms and beauty of the town he’s living in.

Aja is a quirky guy and the eccentricities of his clothing and accessories might stop someone from approaching him. But then again, I’m the one with all the cameras around my neck. And had I never approached him, I would never have been able to tell his story.


Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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