They talked for an hour before Sam took out his camera.
The man looked young, baby-faced, not yet hardened by his life on the streets. But after a couple of minutes, he started to tell Sam about his heavy drug use.
After a half-hour, he told Sam that he had been sexually assaulted while in a drug-addled stupor.
Maybe it was the rape. Maybe it was the dirty needles. Either way, it doesn't change the fact: I'm HIV-positive, he told Sam after 45 minutes.
Sam and the young man stood on a street where Omaha's homeless roam toward and away from one of the city's shelters.
“What's your dream?” Sam asked him after an hour passed.
“I'd like to work in a frame shop,” the man said.
That's when Sam took out his camera.
People ask Sam how he gets these photos, these up-close-and-personal glimpses into the faces, the lives, of homeless men who spend most of their time working to stay invisible.
People ask Sam like it's a magic trick, like he's conjured the collection of photos that goes on exhibit at Creighton's Skutt Student Center today. Like he may have some photographic wisdom to whisper their way.
Simple, Sam tells them. He understands these men.
He understands them, because he was one of them.
“Just lose your entire life,” he says. “Live in your car. And you, too, can photograph the street.”
The “Street Life Chronicles” is a collection of black-and-white photos of this city's homeless, a collection of photos that deserve our attention no matter who took them.
But when we learn more about the man behind the camera — learn how and why Sam Herron came to the street himself — the project becomes something different.
It's a glimpse into a walled-off world. It's an autobiography, too.
“I used to think I would never be in their situation, not me,” Sam Herron says. “When I was ... it changed me. And I wanted to show it.”
It happened slowly, so slowly at first that Sam didn't even realize where he was headed.
He lost a job, unfairly he felt. He spent his life's savings and sold most of his possessions. He found another job. He lost that one, too.
He struggled with depression and anxiety, like he always had. He drank too much. He fought with a girlfriend.
He was jobless for a month, then two, then four.
He left his girlfriend's house after a fight in February 2012. He drove around in his Volkswagen Jetta. He realized: I have nowhere to go.
It was the dead of winter, right around Valentine's Day, and Sam didn't know how to do this.
The first night, he parked underneath the 10th Street bridge and shut off his car. He woke up in the morning shivering uncontrollably. His toes were numb.
By the end of the first week, Sam had started to develop his routine. He would wake up in the morning, grab one of the collared shirts he had carefully folded in the trunk, pull it on and drive to Blue Line Coffee in north downtown just as it opened.
Once inside, he would walk to the bathroom, lock the door and undress. Using the sink and the soap dispenser, he would give himself what passed for a bath.
He would buy a cup of coffee, open his battered laptop computer and apply for jobs online. And then, if he had any change left, he would buy another cup of coffee and write. About his life. About his homelessness. About whatever popped into his head.
“Chris had to know,” Sam says of Chris McClellan, the owner of Blue Line. “He let me run a tab. It went over $100.”
In the afternoon, Sam headed to 13th Street Coffee in the Old Market. He continued to apply for jobs, continued to write.
And then at night, he would go to the Rose & Crown Pub on 20th Street. The regulars there got to know him, would buy him drinks.
|Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.|
Everybody thought he was an eccentric, tattooed writer who liked to drink. That much was true.
But nobody knew why Sam stayed there until close every night. He stayed because it was warm.
At 2 a.m., he would steer his car toward the same spot beside a church on Leavenworth Street. He would blast the heater during the drive, and then he would park and shut off the car.
Each night, he would sleep with his work boots on. He would wake up at 6:30, pull on a collared shirt, and start all over again.
“You wake up, and you think you are sleeping in your bed, and you aren't. You are in the driver's seat. Every morning,” Sam says.
“After a while, you start to wonder: Am I ever gonna get out of this car?”
Maybe the low point was his 51st birthday, which he spent in his car. Maybe it was Easter morning, when he woke up early to leave the church parking lot before the congregation arrived.
Maybe it was those four days he didn't eat. Maybe it was the growing feeling that each day without a bed moved him that much further away from ever having one again.
It is hard to choose the lowest valley, Sam thinks. But it's easy to pinpoint the moment when he started climbing.
It was the moment that he first picked up his old camera, a Canon SD 400, one of the few things he hadn't sold. It was the moment he began to shoot photos of fellow homeless men.
The old man in the cowboy hat. Click. A young mother and a child who are sleeping in a car. Click.
A man who believes himself to be the King of Juarez. Click. A man with one tooth. Click. A man holding up a sign that says “Times Are Tough.”
Sam knew a lot of these people, knew them because for a time he belonged to this down-and-out fraternity.
“That's Ron,” he says as we look at his photos. “He's always on Harney Street.”
“That's Lawrence. He's a veteran.” “That's my friend Gino. I'm trying to get him an apartment.”
He developed a pattern for the men and women he didn't know. He would offer them a cigarette. He would strike up a conversation.
He would tell them his story. And eventually he'd ask: Can I take your picture?
A man diving into a dumpster on 13th Street. An old-time hobo by the railroad tracks. And the HIV-positive young man.
“That kid, I worry about,” Sam says.
You don't have to worry about Sam, at least not for the time being. He found a place to live, in the spare room of an elderly man who loves photography.
He worked as a stand-in for Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne's new movie, “Nebraska.”
He picked up a few photo jobs. He picked up a few more. He started his own freelance photography business.
Soon he plans to work on a long-term shoot with a fashion photographer. Soon, if things work out, he will travel to China and exhibit his photos at a Creighton sister university.
And starting today, Sam Herron has his first photography show in Omaha. For the next three weeks, Creighton students will walk by his black-and-white photos of dozens of this city's homeless.
They will get a glimpse into a walled-off world. And if they look closely, they will get a glimpse of the man behind the camera, too.