Catholic Charities program shows talent of homeless photographers
Mike Becker's photograph captures a noirish scene from a city street in Chicago.
Threatening clouds are approaching from the left of the frame. And to the right, in the shadows, stands a historic ballpark.
This is Wrigley Field at sunset.
The shot of Wrigley near Addison and Sheffield is part of a Hinsdale Public Library exhibit displaying images by Becker and two other photographers.
Visitors to the gallery will appreciate the lighting, the composition, the thought that went into their work. But there's a critical message behind the pictures.
"Given the chance, anyone is capable of doing something beautiful and creative," library Executive Director Karen Kleckner Keefe said.
Becker got the chance when he was living in a YMCA in the city seven years ago.
On a Tuesday night, he went to the St. Vincent Center for a hot meal served by Catholic Charities volunteers. After dinner, Becker received a disposable camera and an invitation to take photography classes.
Through the "After Supper Visions" program, people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness work on photography projects of their choice under the instruction of teaching professionals. Becker and other returning students spend months documenting the city and its neighborhoods before selling their prints in exhibits and an online store.
The funds help homeless photographers meet basic needs. But the program also recognizes the dignity of individual artists, Becker said.
"I can still do something that's worthwhile," the 53-year-old said.
Becker has used a wheelchair since an accident in 1988 left him quadriplegic. Then 23, he suffered the vertebrae injury after he had been drinking and dove into a shallow part of Lake Michigan off Oak Street Beach.
For the past five years, he has lived in an accessible and affordable unit in a Mercy Housing Lakefront apartment building. The proceeds from selling $100 prints -- the Catholic Charities program retains 30 percent to cover costs -- supplement his Social Security disability payments, Becker said.
With the print sales, Becker also has been able to afford a computer and a digital camera he carries with him everywhere he goes. And when he encounters someone who is homeless, Becker acts as the unofficial ambassador for After Supper Visions.
"You do something positive, you're going to feel a lot better about yourself," Becker said.
The exhibits at the Hinsdale Library and other venues in the city give voice to the homeless community, said Jody O'Connor, a professional photographer who has taught classes since Catholic Charities began offering the program at the St. Vincent Center in 2003. Father Wayne Watts, the agency's associate administrator, and Ellen Gorney, a volunteer, helped start the project and invited O'Connor to serve as an instructor.
"Sometimes it can be so heartbreaking," O'Connor said. "You never ask anything of the artists about their lives, but a lot is shared."
Classes are held every Tuesday, starting in September. More than 100 people who currently have cameras also are guests of the Catholic Charities weeknight suppers program.
There are no ground rules about what they photograph, but the volunteer team encourages them to take self-portraits and chronicle their lives on the streets or in subsidized housing.
New artists receive a disposable camera to shoot photos for two weeks. Instructors have the film developed and critique the images. Students then get a second disposable camera to snap pictures around Chicago and demonstrate what they've learned over a month.
Most of the photographers who will be featured in an annual Catholic Charities exhibit in June are returning artists who receive a digital camera. They share their stories at opening receptions and in artist statements that accompany their pictures on display.
And do the photographers react to their audience?
"'I can't believe people are paying attention to me,'" O'Connor said. "'I can't believe someone wants to talk to me about my work.'"
In Hinsdale, a library art committee chose a collection of images by Becker, Deborah A. and Alvin O. (photographers typically use their last initial for privacy reasons).
Though a veteran of the classes, Becker, too, sounds surprised when someone admires his pictures.
"It boosts the spirit," he said.
If you goWhat: A photography exhibit featuring the work of After Supper Visions artists
When: Library hours through the end of the month
Where: Hinsdale Public Library, 20 E. Maple St.
What: A fundraiser for the After Supper Visions program
When: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 16
Where: Lagunitas Brewing taproom, 2607 W. 17th St., Chicago
What: Annual After Supper Visions exhibit
When: June 8-10
Where: Catholic Charities, 721 N. LaSalle St.