• November 9, 2015

A Celebrity Portrait Artist Photographs L.A.’s Homeless

Jessie Wender

Martin Schoeller is perhaps best known for his celebrity portraiture—beautiful, tight portraits of well-known figures from Paris Hilton to Bill Clinton, images that provide intimate views of familiar faces.

“Like most portrait photographers, I aim to record the instant the subject is not thinking about being photographed, striving to get beyond the practiced facial performance, reaching for something unplanned,” Schoeller told me.

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Betty Jo Rhodes
Martin: Where do you live?
Betty Jo: I live on the street.
Martin: You are not afraid as a woman alone on the street?
Betty Jo: No. I have God. They have stolen everything—my ID, all my certificates—but they can’t take my soul.

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Brian Moody
Martin: “How long have you been living on the street?”
Brian: “About four months.”
Martin: “Where were you before?”
Brian: “In the hospital. They said, ‘Instead of letting you go for your charges of vandalism, we believe you require psychological treatment and evaluation.’ And, before I left, I told [the judge], ‘You need a psychological evaluation and f*** you.’ And they took me out.”
Martin: “What happened next?”
Brian: “They took me to a mental hospital. I stayed there for two years and seven months.”
In addition to this editorial work, which has been commissioned by magazines like The New Yorker, New York, and National Geographic, Schoeller has also extensively photographed female bodybuilders, identical twins, and, most recently, homeless people in Los Angeles.

“I am interested in the idea of documenting faces of our times, building a catalogue—photographing people from many different backgrounds in the exact same style, revealing glimpses of humanity that are universal,” he says.

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Jonathan Wielhert
Martin: “How long have you been on the streets?”
Jonathan: “My mom never had a stable living [situation], so I grew up with my mom, bouncing from house to house, state to state, eviction to eviction.”
Martin: “Were you partially homeless with your mom?”
Jonathan: “Yeah, growing up, I was already pretty much raised on the streets, I guess you could say. So for me to be homeless wasn’t all that much of a transition, because I already was adapted to it, I already knew how to survive.”
Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Cynthia Myers
Martin: “Are you in a program now?”
Cynthia: “Right now, yeah.”
Martin: “So you got your own bed, same bed every night?”
Cynthia: “It’s like day to day, the shelter. But I don’t know, it’s not really … I end up always leaving every time I check in ‘cause shelters are just not really … I tried it, it’s a program, they said work the program to help you in the way you want it to help you, but the shelter is not just for everybody.”

Friends of Schoeller’s have volunteered at the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition for the past 28 years. It was their dedication that inspired him to photograph the recipients of the program, which serves a nightly meal to the homeless and hungry of Los Angeles.

When jobs take him to L.A., Schoeller stays extra days to photograph. He’s been setting up a portable studio on the corner of Sycamore and Romaine, photographing the faces and recording the stories of the homeless who come to GWHFC for food. He’s been posting the photographs, along with excerpts from his interviews, to his Instagram feed, @martinschoeller.

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Marcos Hernandez
Marcos: “What’s wrong with me is I had a nervous breakdown … Very awful … The doctor, the only thing they tell me is you get awfully nervous, you cannot go back to being normal again. We don’t have medication for that. We can put you in a mental institution and that’s it and there you’re gonna be.”

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Leonard Campbell
Martin: “How long have you been living on the streets?”
Leonard: “Oh, about off and on for six or seven years.”
Martin: “Where did you live before?”
Leonard: “I lived with my auntie.”
Martin: “She kicked you out?”
Leonard: “No, she passed away.”
Martin: “Did you have a job back then, when you lived with your auntie?”
Leonard: “I take psych meds, yeah.”
Martin: “Have you been on psych meds all your life?”
Leonard: “Yes, [since I was] eight years old.”
Martin: “Schizophrenia?”
Leonard: “Yeah, schizophrenia. Bipolar, schizo.”
Martin: “You’re doing good?”
Leonard: “My meds are good.”
“Homelessness affects every community in the United States. Our government is either overwhelmed or insufficiently committed to addressing this crisis, so our systems fail the people they should assist most,” says Schoeller. “At every level—personal, governmental, philosophical—we are coming up shamefully short, and I’d like to be a part of a radical change in that outlook.”

Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Rebekka Lewis
Martin: “How long have you been together [with your boyfriend]?”
Rebekka: “A little over two years.”
Martin: “What happened to your baby?”
Rebekka: “Um … the state has her. Because [my boyfriend] went to jail. And I have seizures that are stress-related. And the only way for me to keep the stress down was to smoke weed. Um … ‘cause I didn’t want to go into a seizure with a baby again. And, um … so the state took her because she had a little bit of pot in her system.”
Portrait by Martin Schoeller
Chantay Mackey
Chantay: I like to look nice. Just ’cause you’re homeless, it doesn’t mean you have to look that way.

Proceeds from all image usage and sales of this work are donated to the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition, and you can also donate to GWHFC here.

Watch an interview with Martin Schoeller on Proof, see more of his work on his website, and follow him on Instagram @martinschoeller.

There are 20 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Denise Butler RN
    May 12, 2016

    That free money was great for the locals. Most have homes and some jobs. But a free twenty was nice and all liked it.

  2. Robert Rosen
    February 8, 2016

    These are incredible. I started a similar project a while back and would like to get back to it. It can be a very depressing day but not as bad as the subjects. Do you get model releases from the people you shoot?

  3. karen campbell
    December 4, 2015

    This is one of the most intriguing projects that I have seen in a long time. Martin Schoeller has done such a fantastic job at creating a piece that is so breath taking and heart breaking at the same time. I first discovered this on his Instagram account and read every single one of these accounts. I could not stop. It is beautiful how he brings light to all of these brave, genuine people and shows a piece of their souls that no one would ever have the privilege to find out in any other context. We are often so quick to judge those who are less fortunate then us without even knowing a single thing about the situation. In Schoeller’s interviews he is able to get on their level and speak with these individuals is such a raw and understanding format. He asks them of their fears, backgrounds, relationships, and goals. It is very intriguing to see how all of these individuals are no different than any of us, often they were just dealt a bad set of cards. Many of the heartaches that he discusses with them are so tragic and moving. One of the common themes that I kept on seeing however was positivity. These people have absolutely nothing to their name and have encountered situations that we cannot even begin to imagine and yet they have a positive outlook on life and have the perseverance to keep going. So much media these days is negative and judgmental. Our country needs more people in our media industry like Martin Schoeller who are real and down to earth and bring hope and positivity to our nation instead of tearing it down.

  4. Kim Mason
    November 22, 2015

    The common thread for most of these people is clear mental illness. I’m Australian, living in the US, and it’s quite clear that something has gone terribly wrong with mental health treatment in the US, and that the problem has been building for decades.

  5. Eugene Schertzberg
    November 17, 2015

    Police and Judges keep us in jails. The only ones that truly help are doing so through shelters, food banks, and community services. Homeless people are not even considered a part of unemployment statistics. Oddly, many shelters are given government money to keep us alive but no one has ever looked at the conditions they are in. Look away everyone. Let the Police brutalize us, Judges hand out convictions, institutes handle the extremes, the addicted suffer and continue in perpetual circles. Thankfully there is a group of people who recognize the problem and are trying to help. They have limited resources and only a few make it to get it. Putting faces and brief questions and answers is a start. Thank you National Geographic.

  6. Prodeepta Das
    November 16, 2015

    These are powerful portraits. They go beneath the skin to show that the these are people like you and me but have fallen foul of circumstances.

  7. Jenny Wong
    November 16, 2015

    While waiting for a bus once, I talked to a homeless guy who made the same bus-stand his bed every night. He said he had been hauled up to a shelter, but he would be back in the streets soon after…because he preferred the feeling of not being confined to four walls!

    • Lisa Crossman
      November 16, 2015

      I used to feel the same way about sleeping outside, Jenny Wong….Even as a single woman I chose to sleep on the street because shelters can be dangerous and unsafe places to try and get some rest….They are not always the havens they are purported by the media to be….

  8. Connie
    November 15, 2015

    These are lovely and interesting photos. When I travel I also like to take at least one photo of a homeless person. All people should be seen.

  9. Sherrie Miranda
    November 15, 2015

    I used to do home visits to clients referred to Child Protective Services. One girl who grew up in the streets was referred because she now had a baby of her own. Her husband was in the military so she was all alone with the baby. She seemed to be doing very well, but I still wonder . . . With her husband gone for months at a time, could there be a trigger (like loneliness) that could set her off & send her back to the streets?
    I hope she is doing well & maybe found a way to help other homeless children.

  10. Sherrie Miranda
    November 15, 2015

    I always wanted to do a project like this: showing the homeless with dignity. When I lived in Santa Monica, I used to see the homeless all the time. I swore that if Bush won a 2nd time, I would show the world what his policies have done. I left LA before I got a chance to do this. Besides I am more of a writer than a photographer now.
    Many thanks to Martin Schoeler for taking the time to do this project.
    P.S. I saw a similar, bigger than life, project supported by Doctors Without Borders in Rio de Janeiro. They were life size photos on glass with their story also in big letters. It was really powerful!

  11. Sherrie Miranda
    November 15, 2015

    When I worked at St. Vincent de Paul Homeless Shelter, they said most of us are two weeks away from homelessness. In other words, if we lost our job today, in about 2 weeks, we would be homeless. Of course, if you happen to have money in the bank or family who will take care of you, it might be a longer time.
    Our safety net is gone.
    P.S. Very many of the homeless are vets.

  12. Ann Guyson
    November 15, 2015

    It seems the gap between homeless and non-homeless is getting bigger. What is the answer?

  13. Lisa Crossman
    November 15, 2015

    Thank you for publishing this story….We all need to become more educated on the reasons behind why homeless exists in our society and the way in which it is directly correlated to issues of mental illness and self-medication through substance use….Thank you for helping to reduce the stigma about this crime against humanity that is perpetuated by our governments and our ignorance on a daily basis….

  14. Rhonda Underwood
    November 15, 2015

    Why instead of feeding, clothing and housing 25,000 + refugees can’t we provide these services to our own “refugees”? Charity begins at home

  15. Dave Cheetham
    November 15, 2015

    Completely disagree with your comments about us failing the homeless. I worked with mentally ill patients in the Boston area for many years. There are plenty of ways for these folks to get help, but some of them just don’t want it. If you’re schizophrenic and you refuse your meds and become psychotic and think it’s better to live under a bridge, then there is very little the rest of us can do for you. We are not forcing people to take meds. It’s sad, but you cannot say we are failing them. They are individuals with free wills who make choices.

  16. Asf H, vespao
    November 14, 2015

    hip, hip,,,,,hip,hip,hoorray, I got a warm welcome, in LA. Bonanza.

  17. Kandyce Brothers
    November 10, 2015

    Touching, poignant and endearing….we all need to be better humans

  18. Aisha Robins
    November 10, 2015

    Actually, what’s sad is that so many of the homeless are children. Hard to become an adult who escapes life on the street with any sanity.

  19. James Bao
    November 10, 2015

    It’s sad how many homeless people are mentally ill.

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