Each step felt weighted, calculated, anxious. I clutched my folder to my side, trying to look as professional as possible. My scripted introduction played back over and over in my head.
“Hi, my name is Erin Woggon, and I am completing a photojournalism project. I would love to take your photo and ask you a few questions.”
I opened the large, wooden door of the shelter, located in the old St. Stephens church on Muhammad Ali Blvd., breathing in deeply, calming my nerves. Inside, men huddled around tables — some in conversation, some intently watching “Law and Order: SVU” on the TV. This was it. I was ready to learn.
During my freshman year of high school, I moved from the suburbs to the middle of Old Louisville, and with this move came a realization: I had never before been exposed to the level of homelessness in an urban setting. I wondered, where do these individuals come from? How did they get to where they are? What is their story? I wanted to learn more about Louisville’s homeless population, so when I had the opportunity in my photojournalism class to complete a project of my choosing, I knew this was the idea to pursue. St. John’s Homeless Shelter for Men was the perfect place to try because of connections through my mom.
After the center employees announced my presence and my purpose for being there, I was pleasantly surprised when a man approached me interested in participating in my project and enthusiastically agreeing to be the first covered. This man, Tim, exuded positivity and instantly made me feel at ease. As I sat down in a separate room with Tim, Maria Price, the Executive Director of the center, entered, greeting us with a smile. It was then I witnessed the moment Tim told Maria of his success in securing an apartment. Witnessing the pride on his face and Maria’s was the first of many moving moments I experienced during my time with these men.
My conversation with each participant started with the question, “Can you tell me a little about yourself?” Tim opened up about information involving his age, his family, and his struggles. He told me about his teenage son and the conflicts he, as a father, faced that would resonate with any father. At first, his willingness to share so much personal information shocked me. I quickly realized that while Tim may have had his fair share of trials in life, he was proud of how much he has worked to improve his situation and is extremely determined to continue his journey to success.
With Tim’s help, I was able to find the other men whom I interviewed. Each stood out to me in his own way. Bradley was extremely friendly and talkative. Just as I was asking him questions in the interview, he was asking me about myself and my life, genuinely interested in learning more about me. His smile widened to the entire width of his face when I told him my interest in attending Western Kentucky University. “They have a great photojournalism program!” he said proudly. We continued speaking about his experience at the university and his life in Bowling Green. After our conversation, he thanked me and let me know that I had brightened his day. Little did he know, he had lit up mine as well.
Throughout the process of visiting the center and speaking to the men, I learned more about their situations and their lives. Terry, a grandfather of four, may be quiet, but it was obvious that he was a proud family man. Otis was the talkative one. He spoke to me for the longest by far, but I enjoyed every moment of it. We spoke of his life, his family, religion, and society today. I can easily say that my conversation with him may have been the most spiritual moment I’ve ever had, and I’m a regular churchgoer.
I did not predict the impact this project would have on my life. As a senior in high school, I am constantly thinking about my future, my major, and my career. With these thoughts comes constant anxiety, which is understandable in today’s society. However, this project and these men opened my eyes to a passion in my life that has calmed my anxieties, making me more comfortable with my hopes for my future. As I was leaving St. John’s on my last day there, I spoke to Ms. Price once more, and after she asked about my future, she said to me, “Well, whatever you do in life, I hope it has to do with people because you are a natural.” I have always wanted to make change in the world and directly affect the lives of people. To have my efforts validated was incredibly humbling and made me excited to graduate and attempt to pursue these types of projects professionally.
The purpose of this endeavor was not to eavesdrop into the lives of these men, nor was it to blame them for their circumstances. The issue of homelessness is not one-sided; homelessness is a complex matter. Through this project, I wanted to bring the subject to the forefront in a way that portrayed these men as individuals, not as a collective group.