Years ago, I resided in Philadelphia while I attended Temple University for my undergraduate degree in Studio Art. I registered for a Black and White Photography class, which I was both excited and nervous about taking. While I loved photography, I never had to take photos that I was actually supposed to develop myself (this was back when digital photography was starting to gain popularity, and those who had not caught on to the new trend had to take their film to a store to be developed).
I challenged myself to photograph subjects who were completely different from the beautiful flowers and perfectly made-up people that my classmates gravitated toward. Instead, I chose to capture the ‘grittier’ side of Philadelphia. I found beauty in what most would consider depressing. I took photos of old, dilapidated buildings, graffiti, and broken windows. These things have been through a lot. If they had a voice, oh the stories I bet they would tell!
One day after taking some photos, I was walking down Market Street (a fairly busy Philadelphia street). In the distance I saw a man slouched in a wheelchair. As I walked closer, I noticed he was a man who was experiencing homelessness and he had both of his legs amputated. He politely requested spare change or a meal from passers-by who, as if he were invisible, continued on their way without taking notice of him. The irony is that the monthly salary of the men and women in sharp business attire who walked by undisturbed by the helpless man in the wheelchair perhaps was more than the man had ever seen in his lifetime, or at least since he had been in his harsh state. I decided to approach him. Although my instinct would be to continue on my way, there was something about this man that piqued my curiosity. What was his name? What was his story?
I soon learned that John was a Vietnam veteran. The mental and physical trauma he endured during the war rendered him unable to work when he returned home. For decades, he has been in and out of homeless shelters and is now living off of little to no support from the government. I instantly began feeling anger and frustration with his condition. Here was man who willingly risked his life for his country, and in return, we failed him. I wanted to record my time with John, and asked if I could take his photo. He jokingly said, “Sure, if you give me a dollar!”
I rummaged through my bag. I gave him all the money I had, which ended up being $22. He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said he couldn’t accept this much. I told him he could. He deserved it for all that he’s done.
I captured a few photos of him, headed back to my makeshift darkroom (the bathroom in my apartment) and I developed my film. I headed to my school, and for the next three hours I worked on printing my photos, giving this task my utmost care, in respect of John the person, and John the veteran. In the end, I think I was successful.
John, Philadelphia, PA 2001
I looked for John to give him my extra print but unfortunately I could not find him. I wanted to show him (and the multitude of homeless war veterans) that although he is often ignored and forsaken, there was someone out there who was grateful for all that he had done.
About the author:
In addition to being KNO Clothing's Creative+Design Associate, Kisha Munson will be completing her final year as a Graphic Design student in the Master of Fine Arts program at the New York Institute of Technology in New York City. Her graduate thesis, Project Speak! involves helping homeless animals, and she plans to continue her fight to help end homelessness for people and their furry (and not so furry) counterparts.