Art <3 Stories – a new project from Storychick: Arleen Hodge

It dawned on me after November’s Icarus session, so many people making great art are telling stories. Their media may differ, as may their subjects and the ultimate aims, but there is a TON of storytelling happening.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, as readers know that one of my strong arguments is that we are all storytellers in our own rights. Still, it struck me and I wanted to do something to build a community with the artist-storytellers. So I’ve set out to gather the stories of the storytellers. I’m hoping to build this into something else, but for now the project will materialize as a  posts here on the blog – under the category “Art ❤ Stories”.

The first story comes from Arlene Hodge. A documentary photographer, Arleen crafts the stories of the real lives of those on the margins of society, without the need for a single piece of text…

I typically start telling my story by mentioning that I’m twice divorced, a mom of three boys, and have a daughter who died. For a time, the pain and misfortune wrapped up in that statement colored everything I did. But now I am moving out of the darkness and into the light. The negative does not define who I am. So let me tell you a bit about myself.

I am an expert fisherperson. My Dad taught us all how to fish and I love to spend time fly fishing.

I am a certified herbalist and landscaper.

I am a fiber artist. I make civil war era penny rugs. In fact, several years ago, Early American Life magazine highlighted my work.

I have come from suffering, but it does not define me. I am moving forward back to my roots.

After I left my second marriage I spent a lot of time in Rochester and New York City walking for hours with my camera in hand. I’d see the homeless on the streets and in the parks and take their photos. I would come home with all of these photos, and not even know their names, let alone their stories.

So I decided to spend time with the homeless, to learn about them, to sleep with them, break bread with them – and to take their pictures.
I started by approaching some guys in a camp near the tracks. Here I am, a middle aged woman, asking if I can sleep alongside them and take their pictures. They embraced me, seeing my passion.

Reggie – Arleen Hodge Photography

It was Reggie who helped me understand how to tell their stories. As I was spending time with him and taking pictures, I was talking. I was telling my story and about my life. I was talking over him and taking pictures and he would just say “Arleen, could you just listen to me? Please … just … listen.” He would get very serious and I thought, … OK.

And I stopped talking and I started listening.

And when I did that, my photos changed. They just changed. It was healing, because I could look at the photos, you just know…

The thing about Reggie is that, years ago, he was a well-known basketball player here in Rochester. He used to work for Kodak and was there for a long time. During his breaks at Kodak, he would train jogging through the streets of Rochester, you know, he was always working out and working his basketball. Then his wife left him and he self-medicated, turning to drinking and drugs. And he got into that. And he didn’t care. He lives on the street. He has a club foot because he lost toes to diabetes. And that’s the way it is.

I’ve slept with the homeless – in the parking garage, at the House of Mercy, and on the streets. After nearly a year with them, I had several of their stories documented in my photos.

My work was getting noticed and local churches reached out. They wanted to show their congregations the faces of those they were helping through their charities. “We want to put a face to these marginalized folks,” they said. One night after sleeping with several homeless men at the South Wedge Mission in the church pews, I awoke, looked down upon them under the cross, the feeling was profound.

It changed my whole perspective on what I do, how I do it and why I do it.

I had more shows at more churches around town.
People saw my photos and realized that these are people on the streets – people with issues and complex stories, but real people who need and appreciate real help.

I do not see my work as street photography, but more poverty photography. And in that, instead of feeding off of the suffering of these guys on the street, I’m feeding off of the goodness inside them. Look at the smiles and the light in their faces. I still want to put a face to the suffering, to make my work humanitarian in every way. That means highlighting the whole human.

The other day, I put a photo up on Facebook of a homeless man sleeping on the concrete and captioned it with “What we need are Pillows for People”. The guys in the garage – they each have their spot and they all watch out for each, but it’s still dangerous and you don’t know what you might face each night. They don’t have homes, they don’t have places to store things. How much better would it be for them with a simple pillow? I just put it out there, not expecting any response, but several people responded right away, trying to figure out how to make it work. The guys won’t carry pillows around, a connection suggested Mylar emergency blankets, and inflatable pillows? People want to really make this happen, to give. That’s so awesome.

I’m finishing a degree in social work to become a certified drug counselor. I want to be able to understand everything the people I’m working with are dealing with. I don’t want to “fix” them, I want to do what I can to make their lives a little bit better, a little more positive – give them hope.

I can go to the parking garage tonight and find the guys and we’ll be high-fiving, and happy – despite the cold and their troubles.

There is joy to be found out there.

I’ve realized that we don’t have to wallow with one foot stuck in our past problems. We have layers to our stories, all of us. Yes, our past and our problems play a part in how we are defined, but they are not WHO we are.

I look to forward to 2014 – and plan to start it with a focus on what’s good.

One day, I want to be an old black woman, sitting on my porch and sharing my wisdom, gained from experience with life, but not without a sense of humor and still a lot of spunk and sass. I see this work as helping me take a step in that direction.

… Check out Arleen’s Facebook page and a recent piece on Rochester Subway, also. And keep an eye out around town for more in coming months!

As we close 2013 and head to 2014, I want to wish you all the best for a new year focused on the good and full of wonderful and powerful stories.  Thanks for your support of Storychick and watch here too for more!

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