THE TENDERLOIN PROJECT
I'm a digital photography major at the Art Institute of San Francisco. The campus is located in the heart of the city, mashed between the bustling wide sidewalks of Market St and the seedy underworld that is fairly blank on a tourist destination map. My final project for my Principles of Photography class was to create a photo story that divulged deeper into the world of the TL, I took particular interest in chance encounters and getting the stories of people who reside within the district. This is my story and the people I met.
I met Greg on my first day working on my project, an otherwise random encounter on the street. I stopped briefly to say hello and he asked me what I was up to, referring to the camera at my side. I told him about the photo project I was conducting around the Tenderloin district, and asked for a moment of his time to ask about his insight. He mentioned briefly that he was a veteran, and of black-Irish decent, but we didn't speak much on that matter.
He spoke primarily about the Chinese slave trade in San Francisco during WWII, how the current state of the Tenderloin is a reflection of the foundations that the city was built on. The market of drugs and prostitution that is still rampant in the area today had been the primary means of income established by the Chinese at the time. Greg also states that without the money brought in from the massive drug and slave trade, San Francisco would never have developed into the city it is today. This is what Greg had to say.
Greg speaking of the Chinese:
“They were the ones that had the opium, they had the prostitution and the gambling, that's how they built China Town. China Towns' always been the center of this city. Every since then, you know. And look, China, the shipping with China, that stuff was humongous man. You know, that comes out of port of Oakland, you know what I'm saying? That's the second largest container port in the world, the one that the Navy used back in the day, during WWII. All the huge servers, the huge internet servers from WWII, right, that Google and them are using out there in Silicon Valley, guess where those servers are. They're in Oakland, cause it's a port, man. All the information, all that stuff that's always locked in at the port, those huge IBM servers, right, they're at the port. Oakland is a land mine of opportunity if you want to have internet. Land mine! But they don't use it because of the reputation that it has in other ways. The thing about it is, look, the port of Oakland, the income, and the sustenance that the bay area gets from the Asians and that the Asians get from us, is humongous man. It's humongous. So, they moved the navy, so they turned that into, after WWII, they turned that mostly into a commercial port. All the navy went down to San Diego, because that's where the Japanese had came through Mexico. There was very little publicized about that during WWII, the Japanese came through Mexico and got into San Diego.”
Greg was extremely friendly and he allowed me to take his photo, after a bit of reluctance. Even though the reference to the WWII internet servers in Oakland is a bit strange, it was great to hear his story and view of the Tenderloin. Afterwards, he kindly gave me directions to my next location, and we parted ways.
The extensive homeless problem of the area is prevalent around every corner. Carts full of people's belongings, entire tents setup on street corners and even people laying down to rest in alleyways away from the foot traffic. Overall they are just trying to get by and the majority are kind and willing to talk. Small talk, just like everybody else, was common. I chatted to a gentleman outside a convenience store about the aloe water he was drinking, I practically lived on the drink in Korea. Even though that particular person's goal was to score crack for the day, he mentioned it very calmly and sort of glossed over it in conversation. The open drug use and trade is fairly common in area, even the presence of my camera posed little interest to those busing themselves with their fix.
As I worked my way through the Tenderloin the next day to continue my project, I wound up running into Greg again. We stopped to smoke cigarettes, talked a little more about the city and then I walked with him briefly as he gave me some suggestions on what to photograph. It was good to run into a familiar face once again, and he had a lot of insight. I made my way around the district, stopping at places he mentioned. I was getting some shots that I liked, but I wanted to have a few more photos of people and try to conduct another interview. Greg mentioned that I should stop by Glide Memorial, so I made my way around the area. There were several people hanging outside the front doors, then I heard a voice ask me if I would like to talk, this is how I met Melissa.
I sat down on the sidewalk as I discussed my project, asking for a few photos and an interview. Melissa was very pleased to help, wishing me the best on my project and allowed me to snap off several photos in a great street style photo shoot. Melissa was very comfortable with posing and carried a tremendous amount of confidence, it was honestly a great little shoot we had. Afterwards we stepped to the side and I pulled out my phone to record our conversation, this is my interview with Melissa.
How long have you been modeling here?
Do you stay in the Tenderloin district primarily?
“No I'm here on tour right now, the modeling agency gave me two weeks vacation. I've been modeling for at least three years on a four year contract.”
Have you ever been published in magazines?
“Yeah, one magazines' coming out in a few months, a fashion magazine.”
Is it a local magazine?
“Yeah local, for the public.”
Do you enjoy modeling, whats your favorite kind, fashion?
“Fashion clothes, materials. The clothes from the 60's, 90's, old fashion clothes.”
What kind of other work do you do around here?
“That's all I'm doing right now, modeling.”
You said you've been here for two weeks right?
“Well, going on two weeks, I'm here for two weeks.”
How do you like the district? How do you like San Francisco?
“Pretty good, I'm back and forth from Reno, Frisco, Reno, Frisco. We travel around the world modeling, doing different shoots.”
Where else have you been in the world?
“Mo Wahu , New York, Mahali, Dallas Texas, Chicago, Ohalo, Francisco of course, we're here right now. Lang City, New Jearsey.”
What would you say your favorite city is so far?
[laughs] “all of them!”
What's your favorite part of this area?
“Downtown, the TL right here is known for drugs and I'm not into the drug scene.”
It's kind of a rough area sometimes, but it's just beautiful, there's a lot of history to the district.
“yeah, old buildings, old fashion, houses that were built in the 1960s, 1950's”
Have you seen a lot of the art galleries around here? There's also a lot of fashion designers around this city too.
“Yeah, I design my own clothes sometimes.”
Do you have a clothing line put out?
“yeah, I'm just starting one. I'm just putting my material, my fashion out there when I can on display, putting it all together. I design all types of fashion that's not in stores right now, something that never came in stores. Like, something crazy looking or something that would bring attention to the clothing store.”
Have you ever done any runway shows here for your fashion?
“I did a couple up in the islands, runways of fashion. Different types of clothes and different types of fashions.”
What do you think is the hardest part of modeling?
“It's not really hard for me because I'm trained for it, I'm fairly trained. How to put my body together, how to look to the camera and how to pose.”
Do you have any advice for any upcoming models?
“Just concentrate on what they're telling you to do and relax your body, you should be more relaxed, not tense. When they tell you how to move your body, different poses, your body should be more relaxed, not tight. When you have your body tight and not relaxed, it's hard to get the pose right the way they want you to pose.”
Anything else you'd like to say?
“Oh no, I'm good! Thank you!”
Thank you so much for your time!
Even though the truth can get muddy when talking to some people, it may say more about them then the truth could. Perhaps it's insight into their passion, their dreams or more. Either way, it was interesting to talk to Melissa and conduct a strange, though rare street photo shoot. There are some things that you don't really expect to happen on a regular day.
on a Friday, after my last class got out, I had the option to wait for the rush hour train that was sure to be jam packed, or take an hour or so and work on my project. I decided I'd rather not play the cattle roundup game under the streets, grabbed my camera from my pack and headed to the Tenderloin. I generally walk around without intention, most of my photos come from me seeking out interesting situations or people. I walked several blocks just seeing the normal busy streets and traffic, I zigzagged randomly through the blocks in search of a photo.
I saw a couple carrying trash bags full of plastic bottles they'd collected up the sidewalk, call me crazy, but I liked the shot I envisioned. I stalked a few feet behind the man that fell behind from his wife, setting up my camera and estimating my metering and focus range. I like candid and unexpected shots, what happened was exactly that. Call it chance, but I raised my camera for the shot and released my shutter right as a man from the building next to us stepped out. This is how I met Andrew.
Initially Andrew asked if I got him in the photo, I laughed and told him what I was shooting and we began to talk. He was an older guy with a very friendly demeanor and the sly ability to pepper in a variety of swear words into his speech, I loved it. I didn't pull out my phone to record our conversation, instead I felt like just having an informal conversation with him.
He mentioned the school right across the street, suggesting that I photograph it, a very old brick building with a construction that was laid brick by brick. Andrew mentioned the building behind it, something he hated, viewing it as an ugly modern building that wasn't nearly as beautiful as the old brick structure.
Andrew also mentioned his co-worker at the bank down the street, a veteran who served in Iraq. He also spoke of a woman he know who had a son who joined the National Guard and lost his life fighting. Andrew showed very sincere sorrow for her and wishes the best for all the troops overseas. We spoke of wars ranging from Vietnam to the conflicts in Syria. On the topic of immigrants, he said he doesn't have anything against the Muslim moving to the country, but fears they may start protesting in a manner similar to what's happening in Europe.
On a lighter note, we got onto the subject of Uber, mentioning the new driver less cars hitting the city. Andrew thinks it's a bad idea because of the children in that part of town that have to play so close to the street. Around this time, a lady walked by us and he turns his head and smiles, “now THAT'S a nice car!” I laughed as he was checking her out. I walked up the street briefly with him then parted ways, stopping by the building he mentioned to take a photo from an alley way that had a staircase between the two buildings Andrew was talking about. My conversation with Andrew pointed out the gentrification going on inside and around the Tenderloin.
The Tenderloin district is cast in the shadows of the large sky scrapers around the area. The massive construction sites around the TL could be a sign of changing times, something that people like Andrew are very critical of. The unique structures and old brick buildings are being quickly updated to fit the modern flow of the rest of the city.
Making my way back to Market, I passed through an alley near Myrtle and Larkin. That's where I met Ron, he shouted out, “Hey! Do you want to take my picture?” I raised my camera and he reached into his jacket and pulled out a flute, he starting playing and dancing. Right when I snapped the photo, Greg appeared and came over to say hello, asking me how the project was going. The man sure has a way of getting around the Tenderloin! We spoke briefly again then he had to tend to his other friend nearby. I said my goodbyes and headed back down to Market.
Ron said that the key to a good photograph is all in the eyes, so he posed for another shot and gave this wild eye look.
My projects due date was quickly approaching. I would spend a few hours after school every day, roaming around with my camera and looking for the right shot. The TL is a busy area around rush hour, and not just in the sense of pedestrian traffic. Police sirens fill the air, fire trucks rush down the narrow roads and you're bound to come across the paramedics at some point.
Police often ride around the area on bicycles, bounding from call to call. More often then not, they just kindly ask people to move away from the curbs of businesses. It is an endless game of shuffling around, but sometimes people are just trying to get off their feet and rest for a minute.
On my final day photographing, I ran into a particularly interesting person. I ran across Dennis waiting on the street for his lady. He described her as a person that could compete with the looks of Tina Turner. Dennis is a retired soldier, 66 years old now and mostly stuck to his chair to move around. We spoke of our time in the Army, he mentioned he was stationed in New York and it gave him the chance to see several plays on Broadway. Dennis said I should make it a point to see some of the local plays in the city.
He mentioned the importance of finding somebody important in life, such as his current lady. He had previously been a model, saying their relationship was far beyond the physical level.Dennis said it was more important to find somebody that you can connect with, and have a deeper relationship. Dennis had hitch hiked across the country six times, saying don't limit yourself because it limits your ability to really get to know yourself. Take the opportunity's that are in front of you.
For being two previous strangers, Dennis opened up a lot about his life. He was willing to share some deeply intimate details with me that are not mentioned here.
Throughout this experience, I've run into a variety of people in the Tenderloin. One thing that has been consistent though is the amount that people are willing to tell about themselves and their ideas. The district is plagued with negative thoughts and preconceived notions about the residence within. Yes, the TL does have a lot of problems. Drugs run rampant, crime is common and homelessness makes itself present on every block. But there are good people there, regardless of their status. People that are friendly and willing to have a great conversation. The problem is the majority of people are either too busy or intimidated.
I even overheard two men talking to each other, going over their "tactics" for getting through the neighborhood. One man mentioned that he sees it as important to make eye contact with homeless people, but to not talk to them.
Sometimes you have to just stop and take a few minutes from your day to really listen to somebody. It doesn't matter who they are or what they do, you can always learn something. As Dennis put it:
"don't limit yourself because it limits your ability to really get to know yourself."