For my one day story I spent some time at the Room at the Inn, one of Columbia’s homeless shelters. To change things up a bit, I decided to focus on the volunteers of the shelter. Since the beginning of January volunteers have been pulling all-nighters and waking up early to volunteer at the shelter from 7 p.m. when it opens to 7 a.m. when it closes. This idea of volunteering when most people are sleeping is what intrigued me, but when I met Shannon Stewart, the shelter manager, you could say, my story changed a bit. Stewart is a volunteer, but he is more than that. As shelter manager, he has spent just about every night since the place opened at the shelter, and even has his own room. He used to be homeless, so he knows many of those coming to stay at the shelter. He knows everyones name and their drink of choice. He understands them and they understand and trust him. And that is obvious. What makes the Room at the Inn unique to other shelters is that it is a ‘wet shelter’ meaning residents can be drunk or under the influence when they are there, but they are not allowed to bring it on the property. “These are the ones that the Salvation Army turns away,” Stewart said. The shelter will remain open until March 12, 2012, but Stewart is getting tired. Tired of the long nights he spends at the shelter after working his full-time day job at Jimmy Johns. Tired of the stress that comes from intoxicated fights of the residents. Tired from giving his all. He was a truly great subject to work with.
As far as my story goes, I am pretty happy with it, given some of the conditions I had to work with. First of all, the lighting in that place is the WORST. We’re talking mixed light all over the place. With residents sleeping the entire time I was there, they had some of the lights off in corners of the room so I was nervous to use my strobe, and maybe I should have in the end. Shooting under tough light was my biggest hurdle, followed by not being able to take pictures of certain residents. Stewart told me that there were a few that were not able to give consent, so I tried to stay away from those. Another issue I ran into was finding a clean background. That place is so jam-packed with stuff that it made it really difficult. Technically, I am not too pleased with this story. I wish I could’ve tried new techniques and really played with the composition but I was so hung up on getting a linear story that I didn’t fully execute that. On the story side, I am happy with what I shot and would be interested in seeing it continue, though I think some of my shots would be pretty redundant if I went back. All that the volunteers do is sit around and make sure everyone is comfortable and has what they need. At this point in the season most of the residents have stayed every night and know the routine, as well as where everything is kept. That is another reason I focused on Stewart, because of all the volunteers, he is one of the only ones the residents can talk to about their problems and feel a sense of trust. He is also one of the only ones they will listen to when he says to back off or leave the building. He’s not afraid of that. Though I wish I had a larger variety of interaction with the residents, I think that Stewart’s role at the shelter is portrayed through my images. This assignment was one of the coolest ones I have done in a while (experience-wise) and I’m really happy that I met Stewart in the process.