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

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Portraits of L.A.'s homeless by Martin Schoeller

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.

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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.
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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.”

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“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.

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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.”
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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.

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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.”
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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.”
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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.”
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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.

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