By Jeani Brechbill independent photographer.
I started making portraits at Refuge of Hope in 2013 while working for my B.F.A at the University of Akron. I wanted to find a place where I could create honest portraits of people from all walks of life. From the moment I arrived I was greeted with acceptance and people willing to help me complete my assignments. I stood outside in line with the dinner guests as they waited to go inside and eat. I asked people if I could take their picture in front of a simple background that surrounded the area we all shared. It was a nerve-wracking experience to ask strangers to allow me to photograph them but we all became more comfortable with time. When I came back to Refuge for another day of shooting, I brought back 8 X 10 prints to give to those I photographed. People really enjoyed this. Not everyone owns a camera, let alone a phone and might not have a physical print of a picture of themselves. This was exactly how I met Shad.
One cold winter day in January of 2015, I saw a man sitting on the brick ledge outside of Refuge of Hope. I noticed him right away and thought he would be a great subject to photograph. His name was Shad. He had medium length, gray hair under a long winter hat that wrapped around his neck like a scarf. His beard was long and gray. It seemed to keep him warm from the harsh winter. He had a red duffle bag he used to carry his belongings and always was smoking cigarettes. I was a bit nervous to approach him at first but was immediately calmed by his friendly smile and energetic personality. I explained why I wanted to photograph him and he happily obliged. I usually don’t ask people to smile for these portraits but he couldn’t stop. I shot many with him laughing out loud but ended with him in a relaxed pose and a pleasant grin on his face. I told him how much I appreciated that he allowed me to photograph him and that I would bring him a copy of the photo after I showed it to my class. He immediately told me to caption the photo “homeless.” I thought this was strange but admired his candidness.
A few months had gone by without seeing Shad when I went to Refuge to photograph. Then one day in March, as I was taking pictures and chatting with guests outside, I saw Shad, but I didn’t recognize him right away. This time he approached me. His hair was shaved and his beard was trimmed. He was wearing a nice flannel shirt with a thin blue jacket. This was not the person I remembered. I don’t know exactly why he had changed his appearance; I think it was something along the lines of him just wanting a change. Regardless, I couldn’t wait to photograph him and document the transition he had made.
I continued going to Refuge of Hope to build my body of work for my senior exhibition. I met so many people with remarkable stories. It became much easier to ask people to pose for me. At this point, I felt like a part of the Refuge family. Even newcomers started asking me to take pictures of them in hopes of obtaining a print of themselves. I was thrilled to be able to capture such raw expressions from the people I photographed.
Then, in October of 2016, a year after graduating, I wanted to continue to create portraits and visit the place that had become so familiar. It was a rainy day when I returned. To avoid my equipment from getting wet, I took shelter underneath an awning that was across the street. There were about five kids gathered there that didn’t mind having their picture taken. As I was photographing and talking with the kids, a man approached and said he was sure I would want to photograph him. I didn’t recognize him at first. I examined his face as he began to talk and smile. I knew shortly after, from his silly and witty personality, that it was Shad.
Shad’s hair wasn’t trimmed and his clothes weren’t neat and he had long, messy gray hair with an ungroomed white beard. He wore a thick flannel shirt under a dirty gray coat. He was smoking the same cigarettes and was just as friendly as I remembered. He offered to stand in and let me photograph him. He talked and laughed throughout the shoot just like he did before. I was able to capture a few serious moments of him but caught a photo that I think strongly captures who he is. He was in mid-laugh with his eyes closed and had a wide, sincere smile over his face. This time, he didn’t have teeth. It made more sense why I wasn’t able to recognize him. Shad stood outside in the drizzling rain to catch up with me. He told me that he was still homeless; he believed it was more “freeing” that way. He explained the addiction that ran in his family. He mentioned that he has struggled with addiction of methamphetamines for the past twenty-five years and with alcohol for the past ten. He told me that he started with liquor then switched to beer and would drink as many as he could. Shad tried rehab multiple times but says he can’t quit until he can say, “I don’t even want this anymore.” His openness was comforting to me.
I realized the impact I had made on him when he told me that he has kept his photo with him after all this time. The picture I had taken meant enough to him to keep, even though he didn’t have a frame or home to display it in.