In May 2022, B Goodell, a local Louisville-based photographer who founded Unboxed Photography, handed out 36 disposable cameras to homeless people living in Boulder.
Goodell then hand-printed 20 photos that were selected for the Lived Experience Exhibition, which launched this week at the Boulder Public Library. It runs through Jan. 14, 2023.
Organizers of the exhibit hope it will give a glimpse into everyday life of people experiencing homelessness in the community. By allowing them to represent themselves as they want to be seen, they also hope it might balance narratives about homeless people at a time when some residents are posting photos online of trash and drug paraphernalia at encampments.
“I think we all have that desire to represent ourselves as we see us — and as the people who care about us see us — and not have that taken from us,” Nicole Speer, a city councilmember and volunteer who helped select the photos, said of the exhibit.
The exhibit is located in a nondescript hallway inside the library near the cafe. The black-and-white photos do not include names or captions. Goodell printed the images at the North Boulder Photo Center without cropping them, either.
“I didn’t want to name the pieces or put some sort of interpretation on the pieces. I wanted to leave it up to the viewer,” Goodell said in an interview. “I wanted it to be as raw and pure as possible.”
Goodell partnered on the project with Jen Livovich, the founder of Feet Forward, an organization that provides resources to homeless people at the Boulder Bandshell on Tuesdays. Together they distributed cameras. They gave people who returned them $20 gift cards to King Soopers. They also plan to award cash prizes to all finalists whose images were used.
The idea for the exhibit came from the Through Our Eyes Project, a similar 2016 photo project based in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The Boulder exhibit was funded with an $8,000 grant from the Boulder Arts Commission.
About two-dozen people attended the soft opening on Tuesday night. Some said they saw messages in the photos of not feeling welcome: a “do not enter” sign in one photo, a public bathroom that has been locked shut for months in another. As if on the outside looking in, one image shows what appears to be a sports car behind a glass window.
Others commented that the photos were similar to those anyone would take: a selfie downtown, a man winking into the camera, a valley in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“We see ourselves as being on different sides of the issue,” Speer, a Feet Forward volunteer, said. “But we all care about the same things, fundamentally. Our friends, our family, the beautiful landscape. These are the things we are all here for.”
‘Only a homeless person would understand’
Veronica Jesus Molina-Torres, 42, was one of the photographers. She, too, described Boulder as being somewhat divided between the housed and unhoused. She said she hoped her photos might bring people together.
“With the pictures, it’s like a time where we can actually just get along,” she said from inside her tent in Central Park on Tuesday. “I feel like I’m the elephant in the room. I make myself noticeable, but not really. I’m behind enemy lines. And I just put up a wall.”
Molina-Torres said it was fun to take the photos.
“I just thought of myself as a regular person,” she said of the photo assignment. “I go from day to day, hour to hour. Some days I love it, some days I don’t.”
One of her photos shows a group of people sitting up against a wall across the street from Deacons’ Closet, which hands out free camping supplies and clothes on Thursday mornings. Another photo is of a man at the back of the Boulder Bandshell. It shows a broken mirror and a crate with clothes draped over it.
“She was living at the Bandshell and she had a dog at that time,” Livovich, who knows Molina-Torres, said during the exhibit opening. “It’s a sore subject for her. The cops took it.”
Molina-Torres did not attend the exhibit. Boulder Reporting Lab is not aware of any photographers who did.
Livovich, who was homeless in Boulder from 2012 to 2017, before starting her nonprofit to help others, shared her thoughts on several photos during the opening night. She said she liked one that showed the backs of two people walking along Broadway toward downtown.
“That’s the walk from the shelter,” she said. “Only a homeless person would understand what that looks like. It’s horrible.”
Another photo shows two people kissing in a hammock by the Boulder Creek. Below them, in another hammock, is a young man throwing up devil horns and looking directly at the camera. The photographer’s legs are in the photo.
“Here’s what I see,” Goodell said of the photo. “There’s this foreground, middleground and background. Compositionally, that’s really strong. And the dynamic seems really playful and fun.”
“Yeah, it’s not,” Livovich said of the same photo.
“Maybe,” Goodell said. “That’s up to the viewer.”
“I see that as opportunistic,” Livovich said. She said the people in the photo seem to be taking advantage of a homeless person with a camera. They do not appear to be nice, she said. “So you just gave them a whole platform.”
“I didn’t take the photo,” Goodell said.
“Right,” Livovich said. “And the fact that her legs are out, she’s including herself when she’s really not included. That’s why this whole photo — I just don’t like it. But I love that you developed it.”
Livovich and Goodell both helped select the photos used in the exhibit.
Photos of summer, as winter arrives
Other photos show people at ease, relatively so, wearing t-shirts and laying in the grass, during what appears to be warm and dry spring in Boulder. In the days after the exhibit, temperatures dipped into the single digits. Up to a foot of snow is projected to accumulate by Friday night.
Speer said she wondered what the photos would look like if the cameras were given out during the winter months.
“People show up in a different way, in a more vulnerable way, when it’s cold like this,” she said. “You can feel it as winter approaches. People are on edge.”
Several people involved with the exhibit said it would be harder to get people to take photos in the winter. They would be busy surviving.
“What would the photos look like? Miserable,” Livovich said. “You would see people with one shoe on, one shoe off. Cold. Freezing. Huddling. Maybe riding buses.”
Others would be inside the library or the Bandshell, which is covered overhead, she said. The city’s largest shelter, the Boulder Shelter for the Homeless, is closed during the day, unless daytime highs are forecast to be at or below 20 degrees Fahrenheit or at least six inches of snow is expected. The nonprofit-run shelter was regularly turning people away last winter due to capacity. On Thursday, shelter staff announced they have 180 beds this winter, which includes hotel beds. Service providers estimate the city’s homeless population is more than double that.
“On very cold days, I will find donors to buy all-day [bus] passes,” Livovich said. “That means the person can ride a bus until 3:00 in the morning so that they are not freezing to death.”
Molina-Torres said she wanted to go to the exhibit to see her photos. She didn’t show up. Earlier in the day, she was in her tent, which was propped up with a stick. She knew temperatures were expected to drop later in the week. She said it can be hard sleeping outside in the winter.
“I don’t know how I do it,” she said. “I guess to show everybody else I’m strong. I guess it takes a while for me to realize how strong I really am.”
On Tuesday night, when the library was closing, one woman walked past the exhibit, hauling her belongings under both arms and wearing what resembled a plastic poncho that was taped shut around her waist. Another person was outside under a blanket, up against the door to the library.