Over the past year, Thilde Jensen has made 3 trips to Vegas to work on her project ‘The Unwanted‘. The first trip she did alone and spent a month living out of a tiny RAV4 with all the seats ripped out and a small bed built so she could sleep on the passenger side of her car. The second trip I went with her and we lived out of a much larger and more luxurious Toyota Sienna minivan for about 3.5 weeks. This spring Thilde was one of twelve people awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in Photography. We talked about it and decided that it made sense to make another trip back to Vegas to photograph the homeless again. Every trip she has made has opened more doors for her and the pictures she has gotten has been better and better. Our last trip spanned almost a month and it was by far the most intense trip yet.
When I think about our trips across the country and the time Thilde has spent pounding the pavement for pictures the word that comes to mind is ‘Hard’. I think there is a lot of people who think that anyone can take good photographs and that getting out there and doing the work is somehow easy. Thilde and I woke up every morning at 5 AM so that she could drive into town and be ready to photograph as soon as the sun came up. After dropping me off in Red Rock canyon to hike & freeclimb for several hours, Thilde would drive into Vegas and take pictures until the sun would be too high in the sky, and then we would break for lunch for a few hours. Every evening we would head back into Vegas to catch the late afternoon light for a second session. Our photography routine caused one day to blur into another. Our lack of hygiene and access to showers made both of us feel like we were essentially homeless and living out of our car. People in Vegas would start to make an effort not to look at us and give us a wider berth when walking by us and soon we began to understand how a lot of the people living on the street felt. The most shocking part of our journey was to experience first hand what I can only describe as the accelerated deterioration of our nation.
It’s impossible to talk about the current situation in America without discussing American politics. At the very root of our culture is an unspoken mantra that seems to be firmly believed in by a great majority of Americans. It is:
Contribute or die.
When Thilde and I spend weeks in Demark we don’t see hardly any homeless people. How can it be? Is there no one with mental illness or drug addiction problems in Denmark? I find that extremely unlikely. Denmark takes care of its own and the Danish people have decided that they are not interested in having ANY of their citizens living hungry and homeless on the streets. In America, we could not be farther away from that belief. The organizations that support the homeless through feeding and shelters have no interest in solving the homeless problem, their very existence is based on having a large homeless population to support. If you could wave a magic wand and make all the homeless people disappear then these organizations would cease to exist. The police and government spend large amounts of time and effort keeping the homeless moving, seizing their belongings, pushing them along. Thilde asked the police where they could go. His reply was simple “I don’t know where they can go, but they can’t stay here”. The solution is the same no matter where you go. Push the homeless off onto someone else’s land and let them deal with the problem. In 2000 a study was done that showed that there was 2.3-3.5 million homeless in the US, and that there were 5 times that many vacant houses in the country. How can there be so many homeless when we have so many vacant houses? Contribute or die. The homeless would not have the means to pay the heavy mortgage and tax burden of owning a home so they are kept out on the streets.
Nowhere in the world is the lifestyle of casino capitalism more prevalent than in Las Vegas, Nevada. People come from all over the world to win big, but what they don’t realize is that gambling really is just a tax for people who are bad at math. The house always wins. When you step foot into the casinos you are quickly engulfed with the toxic environment of blinking lights and stale tobacco smoke. Row after row of machines are filled with blank-faced Americans dropping coin after coin into the machine waiting for their big payout. I find myself wanting to grab these people by the shoulders and shake them to bring them back to reality. They are not special, they are not lucky. They flush away their life savings and their children’s college tuition and inheritance for that feeling they get when $20 in nickels pour out of the slot machines. It’s a travesty of epic proportions, I sit in disbelief that this kind of system is even legal at all. America seems all about freedoms, the freedom to drive your car while drunk, the freedom to gamble your savings away, the freedom to consume gluttonously, the freedom to own a personal arsenal of automatic weapons, the freedom to be racist and sexist without any consequence. Are these freedoms so important that we are willing to trade our humanity away for them?
Many people would be jealous of their partner’s success. Nothing could be further from my mind. I am so proud of Thilde and the work that she does with the homeless that I feel like it is a great honor to be able to support her. She is fearless towards not only the drug dealers, and criminals, but also with the cops. Thilde believes strongly in social justice and she can see that what is happening here in the US is just plain wrong. Contribute or die. When dealing with the police she constantly questions their positions and on some level is one of the few people asking the question, “is this really fair that some have so much and others in this country have nothing?” How can we as a culture continue to turn our back on our own veterans, our own children, our own parents. When we ignore their hardship it demeans us and strips away our own humanity. I felt it in myself, everywhere we went and I waited in the car so many homeless would come up to my window and ask for money as if I should pay them for being in their territory. It was hard to look them in the eye, it was hard to tell them no, but no was what I told them again and again. I left it up to Thilde to distribute money to the homeless based on how much time they were willing to give to her project, and she selflessly gave away thousands of dollars in $5 bills over our three trips there. Did it help? The problem with homeless in this country is so vast and overwhelming that in order to really solve it we not only would need the political will to do so (right now there is none) but it would also take hundreds of billions of dollars which no one seems interested in spending.
A large part of the project is really about love. Thilde is an amazing woman and seems to generally bring out the best in people. Everywhere she goes people generally respond well to her. So many of the homeless are very generous and loving with her, surprising since most of them have so little. The bonds she develops in her work come through with intimacy that she is able to capture them with, its not pretty and sparkling, it’s gripping and real. Most of the homeless suffer from some kind of mental illness, whether they became ill and then became homeless or whether being homeless has driven them crazy is up for debate. Thilde and I have become believers in the latter, studies have shown that not getting good sleep can basically drive and sane person to the brink of madness. When we were in Vegas they caught a man who was killing the homeless in their sleep. Although the police say he only killed 2 people, the homeless of Vegas believe that he killed 28. It’s hard to get a good nights sleep when you’re worried about someone smashing in your head with a cinderblock when you sleep. I am ecstatic that the police spent the time and effort to apprehend this murder, more often than not they turn a blind eye if the serial killer is only killing off the homeless.
A similar question could be asked about drug & alcohol addiction which a majority of homeless seem to suffer from. Did they become addicts first or did the boredom of living on the street drive them to use drugs? Again we believe it to be the latter. Most people lack the imagination to ever see themselves being homeless, but almost everyone we talked to used to do something respectable, they lived in houses and worked at good jobs and many had families that loved them. Almost all of them talk about some kind of traumatic event that made them homeless, a death in the family, a divorce, excommunication from family, an injury on the job, the stories are endless and each of them seems more tragic than the last. Because Thilde and I have both suffered from serious illness it is not hard for us to imagine falling from grace. The reality is that without a strong and supportive family we would both most likely be homeless today. I found it strange that there were almost no Mexican or Asian homeless people. It would not be a stretch to say that these cultures put a great deal of importance on family and when a member of the family suffers from severe hardship, the rest pitch in to pick up the slack instead of turning their backs on them. Strange that the two cultures most accused of being in America illegally do the best job of supporting their own, perhaps we could learn something from them.
One of the hardest parts of driving across the country was seeing the midwest. State after state of our nation is in serious decline. America has become endless miles of Walmarts, strip malls, and fast food restaurants. We tried to stop at a few places but vegetarian options were slim to none. As we drove through acres of cows in Concentrated Animal Feedlot Operations I am reminded that Land-Based Animal Agriculture is probably the greatest moral crime of our generation. If people are serious about contributing to stop environmental destruction and global warming the easiest way to make a serious impact is to simply stop eating meat. Yet every single environmental organization refuses to even talk about that, they basically say ‘just do what you’re doing and conserve a little bit of water, recycle and use reusable grocery bags and everything will be OK’.
The number one job in the US right now is truck drivers. Nowhere is that more evident than when you are driving across the country. As manufacturing jobs have disappeared from this country, truck drivers have filled the employment gaps for unskilled laborers (as shown in this incredible article by NPR). In the next 5-10 years with automation, most of the fast food jobs will disappear. Within 10 years almost all the Uber, Lyft, cabbie drivers will disappear. 20 years from now all the truck driving jobs will be gone. What are all these Americans going to do? There will be far more people than there will be jobs for them to do. The unemployment numbers in this country are going to continue to increase because there are too many people and not enough jobs for them to do. Are we going to turn our backs on all those unemployed people? Do we turn them out to the streets because even though they are willing to work, there are just no jobs for them to do?
I’m ashamed of this country, I’m ashamed of our choices but mostly I’m ashamed of myself. How can we turn our backs on so many of our own and decide to continue the mantra:
Contribute or die.
Is that really who we are? Is that all we can be?
There has to be more to this humanity.