Zackary Canepari on ‘Shame of the City’
“At its core, it’s pretty simple. Living costs have gone up but wages have not. It usually starts small. Lose a job. Get evicted. Then, you’re crashing on a friend’s couch one night or in your car the next. Spend all your savings on cheap hotel rooms. Before you know it, you’re sleeping on the street or in a shelter. Less than 20% of the homeless populations in the USA are chronically homeless, most people are just poor and unstable, being forced to move over and over.
They camp on the streets in between residencies, even though many of them are working.
Not all of them are old or mentally ill or addicted to drugs, but once you fall down the rabbit hole, it’s just so hard to get back out, and with the costs in San Francisco so extreme now, that hole just keeps getting deeper.
For this project, we teamed with St. Anthony’s Shelter in San Francisco. They introduced us to some of their clients who come for services or lunch in their kitchen. We set up a small studio and started photographing and interviewing people over the course of three visits to the shelter. While the premise was to talk about individual housing conditions, so many of these people had interesting stories and perspectives to share, so I’ve adapted some of the interview bites to reflect that. In the end, I’m hoping these photos humanize these folks a bit. It’s so easy to dismiss the ‘Shame of the City’ as some sort of ‘systematic, big-topic issue’ but its different when you look into people’s eyes and hear the voices of those trapped in the cycle of homelessness.”
About Zackary Canepari
Zackary Canepari is currently based in Northern California. He is one of our original Global Imaging Ambassadors and a member of Panos Pictures.
Born in 1979 in Boston, Massachusetts, Zack is an photographer and filmmaker specializing in documentary projects. After studying photography in Paris and San Francisco, he moved to New Delhi and worked as a photojournalist from 2007 to 2009.
As a photographer, his work has taken him to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe and Nigeria for a number of clients including New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Time magazine.
In 2009, Zack teamed up with filmmaker Drea Cooper and created "California Is A Place," a series of short documentary films about California. The films were screened at a number of international festivals, including Sundance and IDFA.
Zack’s first feature-length documentary film titled ’T-Rex’ will premiere at Austin’s SXSW festival in March 2015.
Why did you choose to shoot a series on homelessness in San Francisco for #FutureofCities?
Actually, this project started with an assignment. The writer had been working with a handful of people that had recently become homeless and my client wanted to do something visual with it.
So I suggested the portraits as a way to separate these folks from their environments. At first, it was going to be just 5 folks from that story but it evolved quickly into doing more portraits and interviews so we could see what other people are going through. With the help of St. Anthony’s shelter, we were able to access a lot more people.
Once the #FutureofCities project evolved, I thought it was important that subject matter like this be part of the project. In San Francisco, there is tons of innovation and progressive thinking, but the flip side of that is that for some people, the city has become really difficult to live in. It seemed important to highlight this issue.
You interviewed a lot of people for this story who are living without permanent homes. What was the most challenging part about interviewing these subjects?
The real challenge was going in with an open mind. San Francisco is my city and the homeless problem has always been such a strong component of living here.
It’s really in your face and very visceral; Lots of mental illness, lots of abuse. It’s not pretty, especially in the Tenderloin, the epicenter of this mess.
But St. Anthony’s Shelter is such a well run and supportive program that it really changed my perception of how much more complex the situation really is; Jobs…families…homes… Often no mental illness or abuse issues.
Their clients were super diverse. Most of them were just poor. The poorest of the poor. The challenge for them was shaking the ‘homelessness’ stigma. Once you’re in it, it’s just hard to get out…
Out of all the stories you heard and people you photographed for this series, who stands out the most?
Good question. It has to be Richard, the older guy with the dog.
I mean, Richard never really had much. Him, his wife and his dog Summer were nomadic and living in an RV. They just travelled around. Not wanting much. Not needing much.
In the space of one month, Richard’s RV busted and his wife got very sick and passed away. It all just happened super fast.
The next thing you know; Richard is sleeping in Golden Gate Park every night. He couldn’t even talk about his wife without crying, he had just lost everything. If it wasn’t for Summer, I’m not sure what he’d be doing. That dog really keeps him going.
I also really like Dennis from South Boston. I’m from that city too so we just vibed. All that guy wanted to talk about was food. All he wanted was a damn kitchen so he could cook. People don’t need much to be happy, but it’s easy to feel like we need everything. It’s a shame. If Dennis had a kitchen to make his Boston Baked Beans in, I swear, the man would be content the rest of his life.
For our #FutureofCities project so far, you've shot Bangkok in a time of excess and artificial realities, as well as creating work on the unrelenting issue of homelessness in San Francisco. If you had one more story to shoot, what city would you choose and what your work be about?
Ha! Trick question. You know my heart belongs to Rio de Janeiro. Even more so as it relates to the Future of Cities project.
Over the last 8 years, Rio has undergone such an upheaval that it’s literally pushed the place into widespread revolt. That’s not that easy in a place like Rio, and the Olympics are still coming! The place is like an experiment in globalization. “How quickly can we transform one city in a decade?”
If you want an alternative answer, I think Lagos is super interesting. With 20 million people in one city, it’s literally bursting at the seams. It also has a huge wealth disparity, and although it’s always been corrupt and dysfunctional it also has such a strong cultural identity. I’m always attracted to places with a strong sense of self.
Check out Zack’s #FutureofCities story ‘made in Bangkok’