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Ricardo Viera, Curator
Lehigh University Art Gallery & Ann Marie Rousseau

 

Ricardo Viera: Has the perception of homelessness changed since you published your book Shopping Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives in 1981?
 

Ann Marie Rousseau: Yes, I think it has changed. I can say that there is both more and less interest in homelessness today. When I first worked on my book in the 1970’s there was very little interest in the subject of homelessness, and particularly little understanding of what was happening for women. It’s been difficult for people to remember that homelessness was not a subject in the way that it has become. In fact people would often say to me that there were actually very few homeless women. I knew this wasn’t true, because I worked at the one municipal shelter available in New York City for women, and I saw them turn away women every night. This meant that there was almost nowhere else for a woman to go.
 
R.V.: Where did they go?

A.M.R.: Outside. There were 53 beds for women and 3000 for men. A man could almost certainly get a bed if he wanted one. Albeit a grungy cot in a flop house. But women more likely walked the streets. Since then a law has been passed saying that no one seeking shelter can be turned away. However, in practice what this often means is waiting for days on a chair in an emergency assistance unit for a bed to become available. So now there is a perception that more is being done, but in fact, many people are still without a place to live.

R.V.: How long were you engaged in your project and how did you get started?

A.M.R.: The work in this series really covered a ten-year period of my life. I first came to know homeless women when I was asked to give a workshop in a shelter. In talking to the women, I wondered what had brought them to this point in their lives. I found their stories incredibly compelling and gradually began to tape interviews. I developed a workshop in photography in which the women photographed their vision of the city and the shelter. This work was shown at the Metropolitan Museum with text by the woman about their experiences in the shelter and in the workshop. It was the first time anyone had really focused on homeless women and it got a lot of media attention. I eventually decided to expand the interviews and travel around the country to see what it was like for homeless women in other cities. This is the work that became the book.
 

R.V.: Did you ever disguise yourself as a homeless person in order to meet people, and what was it like for you going to other parts of the country?
 

A.M.R.: It was much harder to find women. I had an easy situation in New York where I knew certain women for years and years. In other cities I had to figure out how to meet people and win their confidence. I did it mostly by hanging out for hours and days in the worst parts of town, but I never posed as a homeless person myself and I always got permission to photograph and interview. Generally, if I found someone interested in working with me, I stuck with them for as long as I could. The worst part was when I would have to leave. I is an extremely bonding experience to both listen to and tell your life story. I was always profoundly moved by what they shared with me. There was no way we were going to be able to "keep in touch" and we both knew it.
 

R.V.: Did you ever try to help the women?
 

A.M.R.: I gave them small amounts of money, bought foods and tried to connect them with social services when I could, but sometimes things didn’t work out no matter what I did. I actually found a room for one woman and connected her up with the Social Security payments that she was owed, but after getting everything set up, she simply disappeared and I never saw her again. That story is in the book. I retrospect I think the biggest "help" I gave them was simply my willingness and interest in listening to them.
 

R.V.: What’s the difference between New York and other cities?
 

A.M.R.: I discovered that New York was one of the only cities in the country that had a municipal shelter for women. Everywhere else I found only small private shelters, usually run by religious organizations. Some cities had nothing at all. This has all changed.
 

R.V.: Is it different for a woman to be homeless than a man?
 

A.M.R.: Yes. It’s horrible for both, but there are many differences. For one, women are in much more danger than men. I found that they had to say up all night to protect themselves, so they had to sleep more often during the day, and as a result would be more sleep disoriented. Sleep depravation is probably one of the worst effects of homelessness. Women tended not to go where homeless men congregated so they would avoid some soup kitchens and breadlines and had more difficulty getting food. When I did this work there were far fewer services for women than for men, (as in the number of beds) and I believe it is still the same.
 

R.V.: What do you think the biggest issue around homelessness is today?
 

A.M.R.: I think the big factor now is the increasing number of homeless families, especially families with single parents and young children. I think this is also where the most hope lies. If the children in these families can be helped, then there is the possibility for change.
 

R.V.: Are you still doing work about homelessness?
 

A.M.R.: Even after finishing the book found that I couldn’t let the subject go and continued to work on it for a number of years. I was obsessed. I came to a point where I realized that I had to do something completely different or go nuts, so I took some time off and went back to my work as a painter which is what I studied in graduate school. Eventually, I began painting on my photographs. Without knowing why, I began photographing the interiors of abandoned houses that I found in upstate New York and then altering them with inks, dyes, and paint. Later I came to understand how these abandoned houses were related to the abandoned people I had been photographing, so I really hadn’t gotten away from the subject. This work became "The Light in Rooms" series.


R.V.: What are you working on now?
 

A.M.R.: In the last two years I have been photographing inside a huge complex of an abandoned mill in Western Massachusetts. Like everything I do, I was drawn by some unnameable force to photograph these damaged buildings, which I found spectacularly beautiful even though they’ve been allowed to fall into ruin for about twenty years. To me they were about another kind of abandonment, having to do with work and the loss of jobs. The mill once supported the whole town. When the mill closed anyone who could moved away. Now there is a project to revitalize the community by turning the buildings into a center for art. All of my work ends up being about some kind of suffering, loss and survival and my work in the mill has been another way to express that.
 

Lehigh University
Bethlehem, PA
November 1996

Related Links: Shopping Bag Ladies | The Benediction | The Museum Project

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