Stunning photos place focus on Portland’s homeless

With his project Careful: Soul Inside, photographer and Portland State University student Pedro Oliveira aims to break the “social wall” that makes homeless people invisible to much of the rest of the population. His stunning portraits emphasise the humanity of his subjects, and he also tells their stories.

By Pedro Oliveira, for Street Roots

Raised by a single mother after my father died, I know well the social barriers that one faces when having the tough luck of being born among the less empowered. As a result, I’ve always been eager to elevate the voices of those who live below the radar of social standards.

This past summer, I started a personal project called Careful: Soul Inside, showcasing the lives of real people who had plans and dreams but instead ended up on the streets, subsistence living or in shelters. This project tells their stories, and in the process raises awareness of the issue of homelessness.

The idea is simple: I talk to them, hear their stories and capture everything on camera. My intention is to increase awareness about the fine line that separates people experiencing homelessness from the rest of society, and hopefully to bring down this huge social wall that often makes some people practically invisible.

Doug. Photo: Pedro Oliveira

Street Roots vendor
Downtown Starbucks

I promised myself that I would never leave home without my camera because I used to constantly miss the most interesting scenes. Doug just made me remember why. It was a rainy day and I was just walking around downtown, looking for a place to get a cup of coffee, when Doug literally appeared in front of me, with the biggest smile I’ve seen and said, “Here – why don’t you shoot this,” while making a big silly face and holding an edition of the Street Roots. The perfect guy in front of me, and I didn’t even have to get over my shyness. I had a blast photographing this wonderful man.

Jimmy. Photo: Pedro Oliveira

Jimmy (James) Marques Jr.
Park Avenue, in front of the Portland Art Museum

Jimmy (James) Marques Jr. is a man with an easy smile, a skilful talker, and always uses catchphrases and quotes. Jimmy was born in Missouri but lived most of his life in California because of his father’s military career. His biggest dream was to become a journalist and he even started college, but eventually dropped out. He worked in customer service for years for many hotels, but was laid off in the economic recession. He made “some mistakes” afterwards, things that prevented him from ever getting a job again, he said, leaving only the streets as an option – and once being a homeless, things only got worse.

I asked him about his opinion about this barrier between the housed and the homeless. Without thinking too much, he looked at me and said: “I might not be the case, but sometimes homeless people are angels watching over you and checking your humility before reporting it to God.”

Glenn. Photo: Pedro Oliveira

Glenn [pseudonym]
Downtown Portland, Pioneer Square

I met ‘Glenn’ while waiting for the MAX [light rail service]. He was the first person I saw sitting there, hands in his pockets and with a faraway look. I was fascinated by his facial features and asked to take his picture. Glenn was born in Southern Oregon and has never been anywhere outside of the state. He never got a college degree but proudly says that he has never been a “vagabond” either. “I worked, yes. I used to be a bartender, labour worker, lumberjack. I’ve done many things, but when one gets old and the economy crashes at the same time… Not all of us are bums, you know. I don’t even drink.”

Dale. Photo: Pedro Oliveira

Portland State University

I probably didn’t talk with Dale for more than five minutes, but he was with a friend who he claimed to be his only company and his best friend. Dale was homeless, but since he wasn’t really comfortable with me asking questions I decided to only take pictures.

Phillipe. Photo: Pedro Oliveira

Mark, now Phillipe
Downtown Portland, Burnside Street

I was passing through a park in the rain when I spotted Phillipe lying under this tiny space which could barely fit his body. He looked at me and smiled, and greeted me with a warm “Good afternoon.” He was sharp, quick-witted and wise, but there was something else. Let’s just say he was a heavy dreamer.

I approached and asked his name. “It was Mark, now it’s changing for Phillipe. You know, there are bad guys after me. But I am a good guy so I would rather give up my name than my life.” Fair enough. I thought.

Phillipe is 65 years old, and has been all over, including Vietnam, and is “sort of” a war veteran, he said. We talked for a little while. I normally would have asked him to tell me more of his story but the rain got strong again, and now I am the one who needs to look for shelter.