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Real-life portraits: Amherst photo exhibit profiles homeless people in the region

Amherst photo exhibit profiles homeless people in the region

  • Tim, nicknamed “Pyro” because of an accident with a camp stove, sits in downtown Amherst last winter. image courtesy of Eric Broudy

  • Richard says he’s endured Vietnam, drug addiction, colon cancer and the loss of a job and housing. image courtesy of Eric Broudy

  • Melina has lost jobs because of manic depression but says she remains positive she can turn her life around. image courtesy of Eric Broudy

  • Tracy didn’t want to share her story with Eric Broudy. “I’ve told my story so much, it’s like a broken record,” she said. image courtesy of Eric Broudy

  • Amherst photographer Eric Broudy's exhibit "Signs of the Times" is on view in the mezzanine gallery of Amherst College's Frost Library through September. At his left is a portrait of his subject George. —Kevin Gutting

  • Lee Ann and her dog, Kananii, are subjects in Amherst photographer Eric Broudy's exhibit "Signs of the Times." Kevin Gutting

  • Amherst photographer Eric Broudy's exhibit "Signs of the Times" is on view in the mezzanine gallery of Amherst College's Frost Library through September. Kevin Gutting

  • Clinton is one of the subjects in Amherst photographer Eric Broudy's exhibit "Signs of the Times" which is on view in the mezzanine gallery of Amherst College's Frost Library through September. —Kevin Gutting


Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 11, 2016

By STEVE PFARRER

They’re the people you see but don’t really notice: the weathered faces, on downtown streets in Amherst and Northampton, and along Route 9 intersections in Hadley, toting cardboard signs and asking for help.

The homeless.

Amherst photographer Eric Broudy says he’d been passing some of those people for the last few years, averting his eyes like many do, when he began questioning his attitude. As a photographer, he thought, was there something he could do that might restore some humanity and identity to people who were lumped into an amorphous mass?

He’s done just that with “Signs of the Times,” a documentary photo exhibit now on display at the Frost Library at Amherst College. In 21 black-and-white portraits, each measuring 13 inches by 19 inches, Broudy profiles men and women he talked to on the streets in Amherst, Hadley and Northampton last winter, offering not only poignant images of people battling hard times but, in accompanying text, the stories of how they came to be there.

“I didn’t want this to be exploitive,” Broudy said during a recent interview at the Frost Library gallery. “This isn’t ‘art photography.’ It’s really a collection of stories, so the text is very important. … You can’t separate the people from what they have to say.”

There’s Tim, for example, who’s earned the nickname “Pyro” because, several years ago, he accidentally burned down his tent and some other belongings with a small camp stove. A man of 36, he’s shown seated on the ground along North Pleasant Street in downtown Amherst, bundled against the cold with a knit hat, heavy coat and gloves.

Originally from the Hilltowns, he told Broudy he’s been homeless about 13 years and gets by on food stamps and panhandling; he once did landscaping but can’t anymore “because my body’s wore out.” Though most people are helpful or at least don’t bother him, he says, some give him a hard time, and once he was spat on.

“I’m used to it,” he says, his face looking as resigned as that comment sounds.

Something wrong here

Broudy, who is retired from a career in public relations — he once headed communications for Brown University in Rhode Island — has been taking photos for years, building a portfolio that includes a wealth of images, primarily in color: landscapes, architecture, portraits of people, abstract scenes. His work has been shown in Amherst’s Gallery A3 and other venues.

After moving to Amherst several years ago, he began noticing the considerable number of people living on the streets of what appeared to be a pretty prosperous community. There was something wrong with the picture, he says.

As he writes in his exhibition notes, “What does it say about the wealthiest nation on earth that even on the streets of small towns in western Massachusetts one encounters so many cardboard reminders of those in need and society’s neglect?”

When he first considered photographing some of the area’s homeless and recording their stories, he met with staff at the Amherst Survival Center and Craig’s Doors, a homeless shelter in town, to get their read on his proposal. He says they all told him it would be a positive thing to bring attention to people in need: “They said, ‘Go for it.’ ”

So, beginning last November, he did, steadily approaching people he saw asking for help in three towns, explaining what he wanted to do, and gently encouraging them to share their stories, which he preserved on a digital recorder. Most people were receptive, he said, though a few demurred and others were willing to have their picture taken but didn’t want to say much.

“What was really eye-opening was the variety of reasons people were in this situation,” he said. “Some have been physically injured, some have mental health issues, there’s spousal abuse, and some just can’t navigate the safety-net system.

“It’s always assumed people have drug and alcohol problems,” Broudy said, “but doing this totally changed my view.” As he sees it, if you’re already living on the margins, all it takes is a layoff, or an accident or illness or a bad decision “and you can be homeless.”

Still hopeful

Take Melina, for instance, a 34-year-old woman originally from Springfield who Broudy photographed on a bench outside the CVS store in downtown Amherst. Wearing a heavy, hooded sweatshirt atop a Red Sox hat, almost all her face covered with a plaid scarf, she holds a cardboard sign reading “HOMELESS Anything helps Thank You God Bless.”

According to Broudy’s text, Melina has had trouble holding a job because of manic depression. But she says she’s not on drugs, nor has she used them, and she’s surviving by staying at the Craig’s Doors shelter in bad weather: “You can just be in the cold so long before it gets to you.”

And she adds this note: “What keeps me going is my positivity. I just know it’s gonna get better.”

In another portrait, Richard, a 61-year-old man holding a sign on Route 9 in Hadley near Walmart, explains he’s endured Vietnam, drug addiction, colon cancer and the loss of a job and housing — yet remains hopeful he’ll turn things around. Holding a sign that says “Will work!” he smiles at Broudy’s camera.

In fact, Broudy says he was struck by how many of the people he spoke with sounded a hopeful note: “Their resiliency really was impressive — this belief that they were going to get back on their feet.”

That’s not the case for all of those he photographed. Tracy, a 50-year-old woman he talked to at the intersection of Route 9 and University Drive in Amherst, said she didn’t want to share her story: “I’ve told my story so much, it’s like a broken record.”

In Broudy’s picture, she stands on the narrow asphalt island between the east and west lanes of Route 9, holding a cardboard sign saying “Homeless,” her eyes narrowed against the light; she’s bundled in multiple layers of clothes.

Broudy said he since heard that Tracy died this past winter.

Lee Ann, a 60-year-old Northampton woman who Broudy photographed on Main Street in Northampton, told him she lives at home but has taken to the streets to ask for help because she can’t make ends meet on Social Security. “I’m not here because of bad choices,” she says.

Dianna, another woman in Northampton, told Broudy she ended up on the streets when she was forced to flee her home because her husband repeatedly beat her. And Jason, a former roofer originally from Athol, hurt his back in a fall on the job and now is panhandling in Amherst — but, he says, “I keep pushing myself” to turn things around.

“The strength of the human spirit is incredible,” said Broudy, who notes that since taking his photographs, he’s much more willing to give money to people he sees asking for help.

And as he writes in the exhibition notes, he hopes the show “will change the viewer’s perspective as it has my own and … [that] the holders of such cardboard signs, or plastic cups and jars, may become more visible and more a part of our conscious consideration.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Signs of the Times” by Eric Broudy will be on display at the Frost Library through September, then will move to the Jones Library in Amherst and to Smith College in Northampton later in the fall.