Homeless people struggling to build a community ponder themselves and society in this photographic meditation, the second installment of Wilson’s (The Success of Failure, 2012, etc.) American Street Philosophers series.
Photographer and documentarian Wilson continues his study of Dignity Village, a homeless settlement built in a Portland, Oregon, parking lot. He’s apparently quite taken with the Village, which is indeed a hopeful project: it’s run by its homeless residents; survives on donated building materials, volunteer construction labor, sweat equity, and $35 monthly rent from each resident; and features winsome, 10-by-12-foot wooden houses decorated with bright murals and sprinkled with gardens. Wilson’s colorful photographs depict homey lawn chair confabs, atmospheric sunsets, and evocative portraits of the residents, their rugged faces split with sometimes-toothless smiles. He also relates the hard-earned wisdom of the Villagers, who expound on the importance of community and challenge social conventions that prioritize personal ambition and material possessions. Their ruminations, arranged in poetic stanzas, are sometimes unfocused. (“You don’t get a choice,” muses one woman, “you just get born. / We’re alive. We’re walking around. / We’re trying to figure stuff out. / We’re not really able to ‘get it.’ ”) The most articulate thoughts are usually those against the mainstream rat race, such as Dave S.’s condemnation of “corporate and social encouragement / to feel like a failure if not striving / for the big house, the big TV, the big car?” The philosophizing continues when some of the Villagers attend a lecture by the Dalai Lama, who tells the stadium crowd, “Don’t use all your potential for dollar, dollar, dollar.” The book bogs down when it detours to an extended community-building workshop, in which the Villagers gather in a Marriott conference room under the tutelage of well-meaning human resources theorists; the end product is a vision statement—“At Dignity Village we are committed to creating and maintaining a safe productive living environment, celebrating the diversity of our houseless culture”—that sounds like a parody of anodyne, corporate human resources-speak. Overall, it’s not the pensées that resonate here, but rather the visible efforts of people at the end of their rope to find their places in the world.
The ideas in this earnest but sometimes-muzzy work are hit-and-miss, but the visuals are vibrant.