I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn’t photograph them. — Diane Arbus
San Francisco is the land of invisible people—the homeless, the needy, the users, the ill, the marginalized, the undocumented. People who not only fall through society’s cracks, but who are ignored (or worse) by the middle and upper class residents of this city. Photography has long been used to tell stories of those unseen. It is a flexible tool that crosses both cultural and linguistic barriers, and thus is able to tell the stories of many different people, to many different people.
This summer GLIDE has been working with members of the community to record the beauty of life in the Tenderloin, a neighborhood widely considered to be the most destitute in the city. This project, called Photovoice, is a participatory action research strategy where people record and reflect on their community’s strengths and concerns and promote critical dialogue on important neighborhood issues. Photography’s potential with a project like this falls in its dual role as both an art form and a way to document the world around you. First used in the ’90s, Photovoice projects have empowered marginalized groups all over the world by allowing them to tell their stories from their own perspectives.
GLIDE’s first Photovoice project, which focused on human trafficking, was run through the Women’s Center in 2016. It was a successful way to hear the voices of Tenderloin community members on an issue far too familiar to many TL residents. It also empowered a group of women to record their life through a form of artistic expression that is often inaccessible to lower socioeconomic groups. It was such a successful project that GLIDE decided to bring it back for a second year. This year, GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice is spearheading the project and is working with a small group of individuals to talk about legal status and how it affects our community in the Tenderloin.
Given our current political landscape, we wanted to focus on a topic that resonates both locally and globally. Legal status, or the position held by something or someone with regard to the law, has been a contentious topic throughout this country’s history. Today, people who are not US citizens see restrictions on their access to social benefits based on their legal status, which has implications that reach outside of the political sphere. As both a sanctuary city and a community boasting a wide range of services for the marginalized, San Francisco sees massive amounts of documented and undocumented immigrants coming into the city. The Tenderloin has for years been a point of entry for many immigrants because of its status as a working class neighborhood, its relatively inexpensive residential hotels, its proximity to jobs and services downtown and the prevalence of organizations and foundations aimed at helping immigrants and low-income individuals.
GLIDE’s Photovoice project was a six-week program comprised of photography instruction, photography walks, and talks and discussions on immigration and legal status in the United States. The group was able to get a better understanding of the complex nature of immigration and legal status while recording life in the Tenderloin and reflecting on how the landscape of the neighborhood has been shaped by immigrants over the years. Everyone involved in the project ended with a greater understanding of photography, their community and the complexities of immigration and legal status.
“The Photovoice project has given me the opportunity and tools to notice and appreciate so much more in the layers of the community within the Tenderloin. It has deepened my love for this place in a way I didn’t know it could,” says Holly, who is participating in the project.
As GLIDE employees, we see the Tenderloin’s beauty every day in the smiles of our program participants, in the community organizations aimed at helping those in need and in the rich cultural diversity the neighborhood has to offer. That diversity was highlighted in our group’s photo walks and pictures, and reminded us all of what a special place the Tenderloin is. We hope this project sheds some light on those unseen and lets the rest of San Francisco know the Tenderloin is a rich and beautiful place that deserves to be celebrated.
Please come join us for our Photovoice photo presentation event on Thursday August 17th from 5:00 to 7:00 pm in GLIDE’s Freedom Hall to share in this beauty! We will have poetry, a speaker, refreshments and lots of pictures for you to check out. We would love to see you there!
A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. It is, in a word, effective.
— Irving Penn
Caitlin Jolicoeur is GLIDE’s Quality Assurance Assistant, working with both documentation and with GLIDE’s participant database. After years of volunteering at various organizations in the Tenderloin, she is thrilled to bring her passion for service and the Tenderloin to GLIDE. She graduated from UC Santa Cruz with degrees in international comparative politics and African history in 2010. Caitlin was born and raised in the Bay Area and loves giving back to the city that has given her so much. In her free time, Caitlin likes to rock climb, cook, dance to live music and eat anything and everything covered in cheese.