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n Tuesday night, January 29, 2019, the weather in Chicago and, indeed, across the Midwest, dropped precipitously. On Wednesday, January 30, 2019, temperatures reached what was accurately described as the “life-threatening” low of -21 degrees Fahrenheit. By Thursday, January 31, 2019, temperatures starting rising in the afternoon and reached an evening temperature of 4 degrees Fahrenheit. At 4 degrees Fahrenheit, the severe weather event was over. At 4 degrees Fahrenheit, the weather was considered seasonal for Chicago.
These freezing conditions, colloquially referred to as a polar vortex, are especially challenging for people experiencing homelessness. While the city scrambled to provide 500 extra beds, transformed some Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) busses into warming centers, extended warming center operations (only one of these warming centers is regularly an overnight center and, during the polar vortex, only one more of these was extended to overnight hours) and designated certain sites, such as libraries, also as daytime warming centers (which they already are, by default), their efforts were inadequate and reactive. The scandal remains that no clear proposal exists for the City’s affordable housing crisis. By the end of these few days, according to the Illinois Department of Health, 144 had been treated for weather-related symptoms, such as frostbite and hypothermia. Chicago has yet to tally accurately the costs.
By the end of these few days, the concept of the vortex, a swirling force with a powerful absence at its center, was indeed an apt term for the figure of homelessness in the city of Chicago–not only had we seen systemic absence (an absence of planning and of infrastructure on the part of the city), but we had also seen that the most popular images to emerge in the media from those few days, were images of homelessness. And, in particular, images from one embattled, so-called homeless encampment. Although the photographic scenes claim to tell a story of what it is like to experience homelessness during severe weather, the images that coalesced around this encampment in their very representation–ironically–rendered the subjects experiencing homelessness, absent. Like the center of a vortex, the photographs performed the operation of presenting a replete image all the while absenting its alleged content. Across the media, there were representations of rescuers, guardians, witnesses, deliverers, redeemers, prayer-givers, Good Samaritans–kind people, filling images which, in essence, pointed to the absence of the actual person experiencing homelessness, the person on whose body the cold was being inscribed and who was supposedly the subject of the photographs. While this was true of a wide number of images we saw in our media coverage of homelessness over those few days, this was nowhere more evident than in the representations of homelessness in this tent city on the embankment of one of the on-ramps to the Dan Ryan Expressway during this brief, but staggeringly cold period.
Take for example, this image of drive-by kindness. At first blush, the photograph represents human warmth, both literal and metaphorical. A smiling woman offers a blanket to a broadly grinning man, who we can assume to be homeless based on his handful of cardboard for the “improvised fire” referenced in the accompanying caption, and based on his reception of the woman’s kindness. A more critical look at the photograph brings out the rigid hierarchy structuring representations of homelessness, a hierarchy that stubbornly maintains distinct and iconic divisions of viewer and scene, subject and object, foreground and background. The viewer sees this scene as an observer completely separated from the pictured exchange, a Tom peeping in on a tableaux of intimate human warmth. The giver stands on the side of the road and in the foreground of the picture, never crossing the boundary to the homeless encampment. She is a generic Good Samaritan with whom the viewer can comfortably identify, for she is the real subject of the photograph, the active agent who gives, and in giving she receives recognition for the kindness and generosity that characterizes her subjectivity, which itself is therefore worthy of being photographed. This subject’s background is her vehicle, a symbol of her autonomy and comfort, and the means enabling her to be the subject who gives.
The receiver, by contrast, stands on the snow, set back ever so slightly from the subject’s foreground. This receiver’s face is shadowed and cowled, the light highlighting a nose and a beaming smile of gratitude but revealing no subjective core. In his background is a vividly hued fellow homeless person standing before the tents, the temporary dwellings marking them both as living without “homes” and as passively distressed, waiting for a passer-by to enliven them, or activate them as worthy of representation, with her singular display of human warmth. It is telling that in the caption, while the person to whom the blanket is being offered is named, his friends are referred to as “two others”; such captioning reinforces that these “others” are background vehicles carrying all the information viewers need–namely, that the foregrounded recipient is a “homeless person,” a figure interchangeably in need along with these others. Moreover, the caption adds the tidbit that these men refused to go to a shelter, as if their refusal was a refusal of representation–if only these people would receive given solutions to warming, then they might drop out of sight as a problem solved till the next vortex swirls into view. The construction of images, then, centered on individual acts of kindness drains the person experiencing homelessness of an identity, rendering him instrumental to the giver’s subjective warmth. Moreover, in so doing, the larger facts of the city’s shameful and inadequate response to housing–80,384 are experiencing homelessness–deletes from the image the more difficult to see context of institutional aggression and divisiveness.
We might imagine a counterpart to this image of warmth-as-blanket being a scene in which a kind stranger drives by with a tank of propane to help the tent-dwellers keep warm. A well-meaning gift meant to ensure an ongoing source of warmth and fuel. This is, after all, a well-entrenched encampment, one which depends on generators and propane tanks for fuel. And, indeed, many such gifts did occur over the course of the polar vortex. Yet our second photograph tells a different story. It discloses the subsequent and institutional fate of those individual and private gifts of propane to this community. In this photograph, a group of State Troopers stands with their backs to the camera as they take their own selfies in front of their trophy of confiscated propane tanks. Our line of sight gives us no access to the individual identities of the troopers (seen here from the back), but the concept of a “selfie” in name alone, fills the frame with projections of individual identities. One of the propane tanks had indeed exploded earlier in the day, and the State Troopers were confiscating them in the name of safety–a safety that left the community without access to any heat when minutes could spell the difference between living and frostbitten tissue. The propane tanks propped up behind the troopers, huddled together in the snow, evoke through their absence both the givers and the recipients represented in the previous photograph. Subject and object have fused together on multiple levels in this photograph. Inanimate tanks conjure living people who now stand in danger of inanimacy because representatives of the state have left them without warmth–human or literal warmth. It is as if a community experiencing homelessness has been stripped of their active and living subjectivity. These images ought to be read in sequence. The troopers are those who control their own images (their selfies), those who determine the duration and fate of the warmth of individual acts of kindness, those who, in the name of safety, can confiscate the only fuel of people living in poverty, they are those who literally overshadow any subjectivity in both photographs. The inanimate gifts simultaneously conjure both the giver-subjects and the recipient-objects of the previous photograph, and those absent figures haunt this photograph. The official response that these were clearly fire hazards transforms the kind gifts into dangerous follies, rendering both giver and giftee the passive recipients of paternalistic state wisdom. The purpose of reading these images critically is to bring into view the fact that it is only within entrenched structures of inequality that receiving spontaneous, singular gifts is the only warmth available to the individuals those very structures have failed.
These stories were only a prelude, though, to this story of the now-viral image of Candice Payne, the African American woman who, when she read of the cruelty of the state troopers, “impulsively bought 20 hotel rooms on her credit card”. By the end of the day, she had bought 70 rooms. In this image, Candice Payne’s face is in focus, literally the only legible part of the image. The story revolves around how unexpected it is that her face fills the figure of the Good Samaritan. Her individual act of kindness supersedes and pushes out of the frame any other context or subject. Everything else is a blurry fuzz. The fact that State Troopers confiscated the sole source of heat for a community of approximately 80 people in life-threatening circumstances evidently does not count; that “several hotels” refused to allow her to rent rooms for people experiencing homelessness, is an assumed and naturalized fact; that individuals but not corporations are called upon to engage in acts of kindness does not even register in this story. The detail of her credit card, the sign of her ability to give (and a sign haunted by the lending institution that will benefit from the inevitably high APR) is not recognized; and the community, which in the many retellings, are described as about 80 (sometimes that number increases to as high as 100) homeless people, all ensures the blanching of the image, the displacement of the alleged subject–homelessness–and its replacement with rescuers and the State’s narratives. It is worth noticing, as an aside, the function of the statistic, for example, the repetition of the number of homeless people she housed that single day, as a distancing mechanism to further separate the active giver from the unnamed, passive recipient, without a narrative worth picturing or articulating. These observations are not meant to deny the well-meaning kindness of Payne’s actions, but to call attention to the visual registers that make such acts visible on a mass scale.
It may strike some as myopic to turn critical attention to representations of homelessness at a time when being without shelter is literally life threatening. And why pick on journalists who themselves might argue they were only trying to draw attention to an issue? It is critical to do so, because the temperatures will surely rise and collective awareness of immanent threats will just as surely shift to nostalgic visions of tramps basking in a sunny lack of responsibility, grafting yet another formulaic representation of homelessness onto people living in poverty. The long-term project of dismantling failed structures needs, among other tools, the tool of new representations, or new systems for making visible the actual problems creating, sustaining, and even aggravating the conditions of homelessness, and thereby pave the path for previously unforeseen solutions to those problems. In this particular example, why did the journalists not bring us photographs of oil executives lollygagging on yachts under sunny skies, the very people responsible in large part for the increasing number of severe weather events we are experiencing and which predominantly impact those without shelter? Where were the scans of failed proposals for increasing affordable housing units in Chicago’s neighborhoods? It is in representational juxtaposition, selection and framing that there is an opportunity to bring the structural inequalities into view.
In addition, and perhaps most importantly, we have to look critically at our tired and worn representations, in order to understand what a new representational form might look like. A representational form that will not train eyes on the faces of those caught up in the systems surrounding homelessness, but will rather train eyes to see those very systems first and only then to recognize all of the individuals caught in those systems as one of “us.” New representations of homelessness will ask us to cede othering images, icons, and stereotypes and will instead present voices to hear and experiences to conceptualize. These new representations will refuse to justify the idea that only some individuals deserve help, but will instead assume interdependence between all.
This new system of representation will learn from the polar vortex that there is power to the absence present at the center of a raging, swirling structure, and will consequently recognize the figure of homelessness as a figure that ought to remain empty, as perhaps always having been empty precisely because all human identities resist easy categorization. The new system of representation resists the immediate recognizability and legibility of any static representational figure, no matter how realistic the features nor how moving the presumably transparent expressions. This representational system recognizes the markers we have traditionally used to make bodies legible–those of race, class, age, gender, and ability, among others–not as qualities that live within people but rather as structures in the world with which individuals have long been embattled, and this system cares about how individuals have waged those battles. Within this representational system, human kindness and care is not a random or isolated event graciously bestowed from one type of subject to an object of charity, but a sustained code of conduct for everyone. Kindness must not be the drive-by act subsequently lost in the traffic of high-volume power struggles between law enforcement, local aldermen, and inexhaustible developer and corporate actors–it must rather be the end goal of the demanding, exacting work it will take to face and dismantle the representational forces that divide us into subjects and objects, viewers and scenes, foreground and background, exposing us to the swirling rage of the big actors and the system they have rigged.