PORTLAND, Ore. — A Portland photographer’s two-year mission to humanize and document the city’s growing homeless population is about to take center stage at a month-long gallery exhibition.
“The subjects I photograph have become statistics, or they’ve become ideas rather than people,” said Ian Cole on Sunday.
The 32-year-old keeps a running inventory of his work on Instagram. See the collection here.
Some of Cole's photos are candid, with subjects doing what they’d normally do without a camera present.
Others are portraits, shot straight on.
To Cole, eye contact is key, since so many avoid it when they encounter a homeless person face to face.
“With the advent of a lot of social media and phones and apartments where we have our own bubble, different people become more and more scary and foreign to us. We fear what we don’t know,” he said. “If you’re able to just look at someone and see that they’re people, too… you may be able to find some relation and not be so afraid of the subject.”
That fear is something Cole has encountered before.
A former alcoholic and heroin addict, he’s been sober for three years.
Prior to that, he spent the better part of eight years living on the streets and in the woods.
“My drinking started with the need to self-medicate for my anxiety and bipolar,” he said. “I ruined a lot of relationships, moved around to different cities. I was a chef so I was able to do that.”
After multiple failed attempts, a final, four-month stint in rehab in late 2014 ended with his landing a coveted spot in affordable housing.
He’s stayed off the streets since then, but almost immediately, he saw an ironic contrast.
“When I finally started to get stuff straight, I noticed more and more of that population around town, and I feel it’s a population that’s somewhat ignored,” he said. “Everyone has like struggles and demons and all of these things inside them, but the homeless population can't necessarily hide it.”
Cole hopes his work helps people who don’t feel comfortable acknowledging that common ground in person begin to build a bridge.
“It just takes a step to get your mind thinking about stuff, and whether you're comfortable interacting on the street or not that doesn't matter, because maybe your perception has changed,” he said. “And that reflects how you vote or where, if you have some extra funds, you donate your money or however… you know maybe just your outlook.
On February 15, Ian Cole’s photos are scheduled to debut as an exhibition at the soon-to-open Cobalt Studios at 1030 Southeast Clinton Street.
You can also check out Cole’s photos on Facebook. Click here to see his photos.