I recently discovered the $2 street photography project of Thomas Hawk and was inspired enough to share it with you.  For the past few years Thomas has been working on a project of his called $2 Portraits and he has a gallery covering the years of this on-going project on Flickr, additionally, he recently also started posting them on his Google+ account.

His $2 Portrait Project evolved from being panhandled while photographing city streets and goes something like this — anytime anyone asks him for money out on the street, he offers them $2 for their portrait.  While  the primary purpose of this project is not about helping out panhandlers, even though many probably really do need the money.  Rather it’s about creating a brief moment where two human beings can connect and interact in a positive way.

When Thomas  first moved to San Francisco after college he used to give spare change to people on the street all the time.  As time went on he became a mark, you get hit up a lot in SF and It seemed like I was constantly being hit up.  I know this from personal experience, while on a photographic trip to San Francisco a little while back a friend who is not as seasoned as I am was hit up by a panhandler as soon as we exited the Hotel Diva  on Geary Street which basically intersects The Union Square district and The Tenderloin.  It was actually quite funny as the panhandler was so bold that when my friend said he had no cash only plastic, the panhandler proposed that there was  ATM nearby and he would walk him to it.  If you haven’t gathered as yet the Tenderlion is a somewhat seedy district with a concentration of wide-eyed, spaced out panhandlers and unfortunate homeless people.

Neo - BART at 12th Street in Oakland
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Neo – BART at 12th Street in Oakland

Thomas rationalized that panhandlers are probably going to use the money for booze or drugs etc. and after a while he stopped giving them money altogether; then he found himself avoiding them altogether, eventually simply ignoring them when they asked for money.   Being human, he never felt good about ignoring another human being that way and after a humbling experience one night with a guy on a bridge in Portland, he decided to change his behavior towards the less fortunate.  He evolved and decided that if he was going to be out shooting the streets, he should use his experiences on the street for positive human interaction.  Tomas decided not to worry about what people did with the money when they asked for it and not to care if  it actually helped them or not.  He decided simply to use an opportunity on the street to interact with another human being and turn something that had been a negative experience for him into a rewarding positive experience.

Tony - S.F. Chestnut Street near Fillmore
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Tony – S.F. Chestnut Street near Fillmore

Since his revelation Thomas has taken about 130 portraits of people in this project.  Largely the response by those he has photographed has been positive and engaging.  More than just taking their photographs, he takes a few minutes with each person to talk to them, to learn a bit about their situation and to share those details along with the photographs he posts. He has found found the people that he encounters and photographs are generally happy and pleased to be a part of the project.

Thomas says of his project, he is not trying to change the world with this project and it’s not some grand statement about homelessness in America.  He further goes on to say “I’m not some sort of advocate for the homeless.  Rather it’s just a personal project that I’ve chosen to create a positive experience in my own life and hopefully enrich the life of the person on the other side of my lens as well, even if in some small way.  $2 isn’t going to change their life.  It’s pretty insignificant actually.  But it’s a transaction that allows us to share a moment as two human beings and that to me is more what I’m after.”

Thomas has certainly met some memorable people on his journey and  Bill, who approached Thomas in an outrageous pair of platform shoes,  is one of those that stands out.  Bill is unemployed and on disability but he has his own website and you can find him online.  Bill also created his won GEICO commercial that you can find on Youtube here.  Bill bought a dozen donuts with his portrait proceeds and headed off to surprise his girlfriend.  I’d say Bill really made an impression on Thomas, and teaches us all that love is necessary for humans regardless of the circumstance  we are currently in.

The General - S.F. Mission District
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The General – S.F. Mission District

Thomas met The General at the intersection of McCoppin and Otis in San Francisco’s Mission District.  The General promptly panhandled him for 25 cents so that he could catch the bus, Thomas countered  “How about a better idea, how about I give you $2 for your portrait for my $2 portrait project?”   The General said “But I don’t have $2 to pay you!”  Thomas told him “No,  I pay you.”  Once the negotiations had be settled they got to chatting and when Thomas asked his subject why he was called ‘The General’, he was told, “Because I’ve always been The General, El General, of whatever street I’m on.  From San Francisco to Oakland.  They all know me as the General.”   The General’s claim to fame is that he has appeared  in two episodes of the show Nash Bridges as  a drug dealer who got killed.  I’d say that was $2 well spent, wouldn’t you?

Another of Thomas’ memorable $2 Portrait Project subjects was Herbert who approached him at The Embarcadero.  Herbert told Thomas that he was dying and would be dead in the next couple of days.  He said that he had advanced stage stomach and colon cancer and had to wear a diaper.  Herbert told him that he had arranged for a ride with Swords to Plowshares up to the VA Hospice in Yountville tomorrow morning where he said he was going to die.  He said that he had $17 but needed $2 to pay for the $19 Green Tortoise hospice up on Broadway where he said he was going to spend the night.  He showed Thomas his $17 and then offered to show him his diaper.  Thomas passed on the second visual but proceeded to take the true to life portrait show above.

I find this story inspiring both photographically and in the human aspect.  I invite you to get out in your city and interact with some of the less fortunate, be mindful of your own safety, take your camera along and shoot some of your own $2 portraits and then upload them to Thomas’ $2 Portrait Project group on Flickr, lets see what you’ve got!

Jeremy

Jeremy is a consultant, educator and photographer based in the Caribbean. He shoots an eclectic range of material, but his favorite subjects are urban and seascapes, people and aircraft. He mixes his love of technology and travel with photography. Following a brief post college hiatus he picked up a camera again in 2003 and has been shooting ever since. You may view his work on his website


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