April 2, 2012

Occupying ‘Occupy’: A photographer’s notes

Dale Bourgeois, 55, takes an after-dinner nap in his tent after grilling brats with fellow Occupy campers. He said he lost his job as a cook last fall after injuring himself, and he came to Madison to find work. His injury kept him in a wheelchair for nearly two months, but he still struggles to stand for more than a few minutes.

Editor’s note

Since late January, visual journalist and Center intern Lukas Keapproth has been tracking the Occupy movement’s activity within Wisconsin. He visited Madison’s camp over and over, and he returned with an unusually intimate portrait of what is believed to be the last encampment in the state. Read the story and see the slideshow here: Twilight for Occupy? Site lingers on as haven for homeless

I originally became interested in the Occupy camp because of the political movement. But almost immediately upon visiting the camp, the issue of homelessness stood out more. Of the 40 residents of the camp, only five or six weren’t homeless. And the majority of the residents were somewhat indifferent to the political goals of the Occupy movement. Instead, their involvement hinged on the camp’s offering of shelter and food.

The biggest challenge of reporting on the homeless population was to overcome the inherent suspicion of journalists many homeless people harbor. Whether real or perceived, homeless people often feel taken advantage of in many circumstances, and I wanted to make every effort to create a mutual working relationship — not merely me “taking” from them. Establishing a trusting relationship with a small number of the homeless residents, among other Occupiers, was absolutely crucial for understanding how the camp operated on a day-to-day basis.

After well over a dozen visits, certain Occupiers began opening up to me. Most did so in the form of showing off their tent. In the same way one would show off a new home, many Occupiers offered small tours, showing their pride in the small sense of home they created in an abandoned parking lot.

A 55-year-old man, Dale Bourgeois, was especially open with me. Each time I visited the camp I made a point of rapping on his tent to see if he was home. I think my relationship with him and genuine interest in his life allowed me to get one of my favorite images of the photoessay. The image is of him asleep in his tent after we had grilled some brats for an early dinner (in other words, he slipped into a food coma). It was a sweet moment that I’m glad he allowed me to witness.

I’m curious to see the fate of Occupy Madison. The leadership within the camp has not decided on a new location. Nor have they figured out the logistics of moving an entire camp. The camp at this point is relatively apolitical, but it does provide an important service to many of the homeless in Madison — which may be its greatest achievement.

Read the story: Twilight for Occupy? Site lingers on as haven for homeless April 1, 2012