I am beyond thrilled to introduce today’s guest post, because it is perfect for where we are at in this conversation. Darren is an excellent writer, a large-hearted thinker, technology geek, coffee snob, and all-around cool guy. He is someone who has been living and working amongst the poor for a very long time, and he has some deliciously concrete thoughts for us. Today, he is going to share a bit of his story and thoughts on War Photography, and tomorrow he will be back with some practicalities (a list!) for those of us struggling with how to share these stories well.
On Mutuality and Our Accidental Distances
My first decade of urban life was spent unlearning patterns and habits I’d picked up in the saccharine safety of my suburban upbringing. This was made abundantly clear when my homeless gutter-punk friends in San Francisco gently suggested I no longer wear my college sweatshirt. The metamorphosis of downward mobility is agonizingly slow and sometimes painfully embarrassing. Now, in hindsight, retiring the “blue and orange” for a tattered black hoodie was the easy part.
My mentor in the ways of the street was a middle-aged homeless man named Joe. By the time I met him he’d spent half his life as a wandering nomad. The most permanent address he had ever held was a foxhole so deep in the woods of Golden Gate Park that gardeners and police would never find him. I was occasionally invited back to visit him at his camp spot. It was the only place in the city where you could listen to crickets and watch the fog roll in.
Joe and I became good friends. He introduced me to his street pals and I occasionally had him over to the house for a meal or a shower. Then there was the time he orchestrated a “learning exercise” for me and a few others: a real-life, multi-day homelessness “taster” Joe had named “First Hand Experience.” The title was blunt and uninventive, but there was a kind of mischievous glee in his voice as he announced it. (By the way, as much as I loathe most “homeless excursion” attempts out there, you really can’t beat one that is constructed and supervised by a real homeless person on real streets for multiple days.)
By this point in our friendship Joe had moved out of the park and into the room next door to me in our home. But we shared way more than a wall. Looking back on it, this was an ambitious undertaking. He was my homeless street mentor and I was his housemate. We were like two cultural anthropologists attempting to do field studies on one another, but with neither one of us in our natural habitats. It’s a good thing we were friends or we probably would have killed each other. 
I glimpsed the irony of it all on the morning of day four or five of Joe’s craftily arranged “First Hand Experience.” We were camped out in the park through several sleepless nights of rain and heavy fog, bedded down on cardboard Joe had taught us to scrounge. We relied on leftover handouts and shared food from the underground food co-op Joe brokered amongst his other homeless friends. I woke up tired, sore, and desperately in need of a hot cup of coffee.
That’s when Joe walked up. Smiling. Freshly showered and perky from a great night of sleep at my house. He claimed he was just stopping by to check up on us; just him and the steaming hot cup of Starbucks he was holding.
There is a story about C.S. Lewis which I heard once but haven’t been able to verify anywhere official . But since this is the internet, I’ll let it stand on its own even if it blurs the line between fact and fantasy :
Lewis was once out on a stroll around Oxford with one of his fellow professors, as was his regular custom, when they happened upon a beggar asking for change. Lewis reached into his pocket and dropped everything he had into the beggars hat.
“Why would you give money to that man?” Lewis’ friend asked incredulously. “You know he’s just going to use it all for drink.”
Lewis replied, “If I had kept the money, I’d have used it for drink as well.”
Many people ask me what they should do when homeless people approach them for money. Honestly, I don’t have a stock answer because I don’t think every person or need is the same. But I do love telling that Lewis story. I find his honesty disruptive, his humility unflinching. And I love the way that triangular interaction between Lewis, his skeptical friend and a beggar, peels the curtain back to reveal our common humanity.
Sadly, we are often so consumed by the differences we see in the “other” that we forget all the glorious and inglorious things we hold in common. Our mutual love of coffee or disdain for cats. Our potential misuse of money which isn’t ours to begin with. The quiet ache for far-away family. Our secretly-nurtured insecurities and harbored fears.
Pushing past “mission” to find genuine mutuality is more than just a postmodern catch-phrase like “incarnational” or “community.” It’s the basis for transformative friendships like mine with Joe. Somehow, in that painstaking journey from “client” to “friend” we stopped viewing one another as bags of assorted issues that needed fixing. I abandoned the notion that Joe take off his boots before getting into bed now that he was living inside. And Joe stopped reminding me that life wasn’t run by what I kept in my Franklin Covey day-planner.
Somewhere in there we laid down our armaments of mutually assured condemnation and discovered the beauty of generative friendship. Mutuality broke through like sun piercing San Francisco fog.
So my only problem with war photography as an image for this series is the distance it suggests. Like somehow I’m supposed to pull back, stand at a distance, and hold a lens between me and what I’m observing.
I already come from a long tradition of inherited distance from the poor and marginalized. I’ll be honest, I reek of privilege: middle-class, college educated, heterosexual North American male. I can’t apologize for it, but I can learn to acknowledge how privilege influences my view of the world: like a distortion lens on every photo I want to take.
So in my nearly twenty year quest to see things from a different vista, I’ve become growingly aware of the accidental distances I create to preserve myself. Not to mention the distances created for me by others.
But what happens if I set the war-camera on a tripod and step into the picture myself? Not in an artificial or nuevo-colonial way, but to the degree that I’m invited in by my neighbors who have become my friends? What happens when “their neighborhood” becomes “ours?” When that troubled school down the street becomes the place I entrust my children to? Where the “unsafe streets” are places where we’ve both made our dwelling?
This is where friendships formed around mutuality become a life-line, closing the distance between my unchecked cultural assumptions and your reality. We can no longer hide behind the masks we’ve fashioned for ourselves – or assigned to one another.
Mutual friendship is how the stories we tell about others – and about ourselves – become truer at the core. When we’ve stripped back the embellishing Insta-filters we place over the stories we tell, and let the raw exposure peek through, a quiet integrity emerges. It’s the integrity that comes with the realization that this is our story, the story of us.
So the story of my generosity in response to your need is only one angle; what about the part where we’re both just as likely to spend the money destructively? What about the part where you’ve welcomed me into your home just as much I’ve welcomed you into ours? How do I account for the unnumbered ways you’ve taught me more than I could ever imagine teaching you?
Not far from where we now live in London, a stone statue rises in memory of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army. It’s always been a peculiar statue to me, in part because of its posture, but also for what it’s missing.
There stands Booth, tall and commanding in his army-like attire, with a stern look on his face and one boney pointer finger raised in the air, like a preacher in mid-sentence or a judge about to lay down the law. For all the good Booth did for the poor of east London during his era, it seems odd that his sculptor chose to memorialize him as the fiery street-preacher he was in his early days. But that’s not the part that intrigues me.
This memorial statue has been mounted atop a short half-flight of stairs, as if William Booth somehow ascended his soapbox one day, raised his preaching finger in the air and froze in time forever. Is it a warning? A welcome? A reminder? (I so want to tie a string around that finger someday, my subversive act of vandalism for the social good).
But here’s the thing. Months before the London Olympics in 2012 a second set of steps was erected immediately across from Booth’s statue, a subtle counter-point to Booth’s memorial.
Only, it’s been left empty. Six steps lead up to a vacant platform.
And I find myself wondering – who was that platform built for? Perhaps it’s for Booth’s wife, Catherine, who though unmemorialized, was equally a co-conspirator and co-founder of the Salvation Army’s work among the poor. Where is her statue? (And what would her frozen-in-time posture be?)
Maybe the newly added steps to nowhere are an open invitation for the future Booths of our community to ascend and carry on in prophetic urban mission. A kind of permanent casting-call for would-be figures of William and Catherine’s stature.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a public artist’s ode to mutuality. Where anyone can rise and be at eye level with our neighborhood’s greatest hero, pointy finger and all. Where perhaps the poor of our community can stand up and finally tell their own stories for themselves.
Darren is a former Californian living in London, married to Pam and raising three increasingly British-sounding children. Since 1997 he’s been part of InnerCHANGE, a Christian order pursuing merciful action, transformative contemplation and prophetic justice in urban centers and slums around the world.
He enjoys single-origin coffees, reading for pleasure, walk-and-talks with friends, and geeky tech podcasts. Sometimes you’ll find him picking up toys before a family dance throw-down in the living room.
Darren has contributed to “Sub-merge: Living Deep in a Shallow World” by InnerCHANGE founder John Hayes, as well as “Living Mission: The Vision and Voices of the New Friars.” Though he would much rather do this stuff than talk about it, maybe one day soon he’ll start a new blog, where he will most likely not write about himself in third person. You can follow him @darrenprince
Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for installment #2 of Darren’s post!
The War Photographer series seeks to ask and somewhat answer questions of representation. How we go about sharing stories that aren’t our own–specifically the hard stories? How do we put a spotlight on some of the forgotten stories of our age while still giving dignity and respect to the subjects?
For more in the series, please click here.