Unsheltered:Unseen: A Conversation on a Transformative Community Project

Posted on May 1, 2014

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By Jordan Quintin

UU-Postercamera2014On April 25th, photos from the Unsheltered:Unseen project, an initiative founded by Rhodes College Students, were showcased from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the “Fifth Annual Unsheltered: Unseen Gallery Show” at Marshall Arts, free and open to the public.

Unsheltered:Unseen (U:U) provides disposable cameras to those experiencing homelessness as an avenue for artistic expression. Student volunteers passed out disposable cameras to members of the Memphis homeless community with the instructions: “Use this camera to capture your Memphis.” A group of Rhodes faculty, community members, and students then chose developed photos from these disposable cameras so that they could be showcased in the exhibit. The purposes of the exhibit were to expose the photographers’ unique perspectives, connect members of the community, and instigate change in conversations and mindsets about the matter of homelessness in Memphis. Over the past four years, U:U has distributed over 350 cameras and displayed approximately 235 photographs that reveal hidden truths about the life of Memphis’ homeless population.

I sat down with Megha Fernandes, a Rhodes College sophomore, to hear more about this project. Fernandes radiated energy, reflecting her and other student volunteers’ passion for U:U’s mission.

On the sustainability of the project: “We want our project to keep evolving and our goals to keep evolving to the best project it can be. The community changes, goals change, we change.”

JQ: Why do you think photos instigate conversation more so than other avenues?

MF: Photos are just so real. Paintings are great, but they’re just a depiction of something. A photo is the actual thing. A disposable camera captures the very rawness of someone’s life. Artists capture exactly what they see. It’s just a very comprehensive and genuine avenue.

JQ: What photograph would you say has captivated you the most, personally?

MF: All of the photos are incredibly captivating. But, one last year was just so beautiful. It was a picture of the sky. I loved it for so many different reasons. It was such a beautiful day; such a happy day. For me, it showed that the photographer was seeing the beauty of life and recognizing it in the world around him. Even more than that, that’s something that we all share. This experience doesn’t differentiate whether you’re in the one percent or whether you’re homeless. The project opens your eyes. You can see into another person’s life and see how similar it is to yours.

JQ: How has your involvement with U:U impacted your connection to the Memphis community?

MF: It’s been helpful to create relationships with Memphians and to experience Memphis in a special way. I do think that the Rhodes bubble is a thing. It’s something that every Rhodes student strives to get past. This project has helped me to engage with Memphis as a city. The people that we work with have so many stories and so much life inside of them. They’re able to give us so much perspective.

JQ: Has your participation changed the way you perceive issues of hunger and homelessness?

MF: For me, I think this project has humanized the issue. It has given me a face to the issue and a story behind it. We see people as more than just as the people we’re helping. They are artists. If it weren’t for them, our gallery space would be white walls. In the same way we help them, they help us –it’s the beauty of the human cycle.

JQ: Is there an artist that has been particularly memorable for you?

MF: The other day I met a man named Bob at one of the sites we work with. He’s just so awesome. He helps other people that have been his situation and has been great at promoting the show and encouraging people to submit their cameras. That’s the most beautiful thing… These artists just want to help others and they see it as their duty to do so.
Bob has formed some great relationships with us by working with Rhodes students through the Bridge streetaper and through U:U. Last year, he told me he was in the hospital and during that time, he received twenty-one calls from Rhodes students of all different states. He told me that he has never felt more touched. It was just awesome to hear. It perfectly illustrates the “pay-it-forward” mentality of U:U. We help these people and these people help other people.

JQ: How have your partnerships with Idlewild Presbyterian, Manna House, and H.O.P.E. -to name a few- helped further
U:U’s mission?

MF: That’s where we find our artists in a very simple manner. We know that they will be there at specific times. The people at these sites have been so supportive of our project. The artists visit these places and have a lot of trust in the people that work there. If the people that work there trust us, then the artists will trust them. They really help us establish that line of trust between us and the artists.

JQ: How can members of the community participate in U:U’s mission moving forward?

MF: Firstly, coming out to the shows and spreading the word about U:U. Also, I would encourage people to take something away from the art. Think about the perspective that you’re gaining from it. We want to change perceptions about the homeless community.

Jordan Quintin is a Rhodes College freshman who loves writing and writing in addition to playing for the Rhodes College basketball team.

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