100 homeless people were given cameras. This is what they saw.

What is it like to experience homelessness? What do people see when they're living on the street?

Those are the questions that Jason Williamson, an amateur photographer (who also happens to be a pastor at Anderson Mill Road Baptist Church in Spartanburg, South Carolina) found himself asking one day.

Williamson's church spends a lot of time working to combat homelessness in the local community. And after hearing about a recent homelessness photography expo at London's Cafe Art, Williamson realized the idea was just what his community needed to take bigger steps forward.


"[It was] a perfect way to combine photography, a passion I've had for a long time, with outreach in the community," he said.

“This man is homeless. He didn’t want his face in the picture. He was just hangin’ out because that’s what homeless people do. They hang out and wait for food or for a place to open. They wait for something to happen.” — "Hangin' Out" by Ray Kelly. All images used with permission.

Williamson passed out 100 disposable cameras to homeless folks around his city, hoping to "give them a voice where normally they wouldn't have one."

As part of the Through Our Eyes project, ministry volunteers went to shelters, libraries, and soup kitchens to recruit a variety of homeless individuals, ranging in age from 7 to 75. Each person was handed a camera and told to take photos of whatever they wanted — where they hung out, where they stayed, what they ate, who their friends were — and then to return them to a designated shelter five days later.

"I've been doing photography as a hobby for over 18 years, and I knew the satisfaction that I got when I created something. I wanted these people who are on the streets to feel something different, to be inspired and feel that joy," Williamson explained.

As an added incentive, the shelter threw a little party for everyone who came back with a camera on that last day and provided each of them with a meal, a hygiene kit, and a nice new T-shirt with the word "Photographer" emblazoned in big block letters across the back.

“I took it for the simple fact that if he saw his own picture, he’d have to stay out of trouble.” — "Trouble Free" by Donald Edwards.

46 cameras got returned on Day 5, and folks took more than 700 pictures.

Some of the photos were stunning and, yes, some of them weren't so great. But it was the content of the photos that really stood out.

Sure, there were plenty of photos of overpasses, trash, and the burnt-out husks of buildings where groups have gathered for shelter.

“Someone set this place on fire because they got jealous that someone else stayed in there.” — "Hatred" by Ray Kelly.

But more importantly, Williamson and his ministry were overwhelmed by the hope and optimism they saw in some of the pictures.

“He’s my friend and he will talk to anyone and help anyone out. I asked him if he would help me with the project and he wanted to help other people see what’s going on too.” — "Cool Cat" by Donald Edwards.

There were shots of fathers with their daughters...

“She’s my world. She’s everything. And she’s how I got through a dismal situation. She kept me going when I didn’t necessarily think I should.” — "The Light of my Daughter" by David Minch.

...of friends posed together with peace signs and love…

“We had a prayer time out back at the mission one night and I came up with the idea for the photo. We are all family here. I don’t see colors or nationalities; we are all equal. And the love. The love is good.” — "The Love is Good" by Annette Barnett.

...of things that the photographers themselves loved, ranging from the beautiful to the mundane…

“I love that white dress. It reminded me of when my sister got married.” — "Beautiful Dresses" by Bobbie Nesbitt.

...of murals and church signs that inspired them on their daily treks…

“I go to the Journey church every Sunday. I get what I need there. I love Pastor Chris and he really loves the people. The Journey feeds me spiritually and I always feel so good after I leave. Chris always has exactly the message I need to hear each week.” — "Journey" by Leslie Broome.

...and there were even carefully set up still life portraits of meaningful personal possessions.

"I was trying to take pictures of things I see on a daily basis and I really value him. It was a gift. Prayer is a big part of my life. He has a button that says, ‘now I lay me down to sleep,’ when you push it. I know my prayers are being answered. Anything outside of God’s will isn’t going to work anyway.” — "Prayer Bear" by Leslie Broome.

In short, the photos humanized the epidemic of homelessness in a way we don't often see.

“My friend was having a problem and was on the phone, I just happened to catch it. We’re here at the shelter, but it ain’t the end. We’re just going through it. We’ve got a purpose, you just have to go for it and it will come for you.” — "The Struggle" by Allen Johnson.

All 700 of the photographs were then featured in an art show at the Chapman Cultural Center, which also served as a fundraiser for the ministries working to fight homelessness in the area.

Visitors to the exhibit could "vote" on their favorites by putting coins or bills into the "spare change" lockboxes that accompanied each picture. Williamson and a team of judges selected the "Top 20" photographs to sell off at a live auction, with the proceeds split between five different charitable groups for homelessness.

"It gave [these individuals] an opportunity to be a part of the solution [to homelessness], instead of just the problem that other people are trying to fix."

“I knew her from another shelter. I was going to help her get her clothes out and thought I’d take her picture first. I was excited to have a friend here, but I felt bad because she didn’t have a choice but to come to the shelter.” — "Moving In" by Mildred Johnson.

And the photographers whose work fetched the highest bids in the auction? They each received a personalized prize package to help them get back on their feet.

Each package was unique to the winner, providing them with goods and/or services to help them on their own unique journeys.

If nothing else, the other photographers got to enjoy a meal and the brief sense of elation and fame that comes with having people pay attention to something you created. "They told us that, for a moment in time, it made them feel important," Williamson said. "They had a voice and could tell their story in a way they never could before."

“He was sitting under a tree in the shade and I saw the light coming in from behind him. He was in a good posture. The pictures says that you can just relax and be free.” — "Doug" by Rumchanh Park.

While Through Our Eyes didn't bring a sudden end to homelessness in Spartanburg, it did have a powerful impact on the lives of a few fortunate people.

Williamson shared one story of a Through Our Eyes participant who just began working full-time for one of the parishioners at The Mill. This man still lives in a shelter for the time being, but this turn is a positive step forward in his life.

There was also a woman who was so moved by the ministry's embrace of her photography work that she sought out her baptism and became a Christian.

Another boy reconnected with his grandmother Nevada, after she heard about the project on the news. He's still homeless for now, but a local ministry was able to find him and deliver a care package from his grandma.

Of course, even these inspiring stories only account for a fraction of the people in the Through Our Eyes project, and not every story was as successful. But for these individuals, it made a tangible difference.

"Every day, more people are coming into homelessness and out of homelessness than I would have expected," Williamson said. "But I think the cross-section we have here has done a lot to help people in our community understand, and in providing real things."

“This represented the pain and the bad decisions I used to make in the past. This photo means a lot because it reminds me that if I get in a good place, I want to help people. I never cared about if someone saw me laying there, there were no rules. I respect myself a lot more now. There’s help out there, you just have to go to it.” — "Pain" by Allen Johnson.

Through Our Eyes made homelessness visible to the people of Spartanburg in an inspiring new way.

And more importantly, it made those people who live on the street feel like people again, even if it was just for a little while.

As Williamson said, "The cameras that we used were disposable. But the people behind them were not."

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Image is a representation of the grandfather, not the anonymous subject of the story.

Eight years a go, a grandfather in Michigan wrote a powerful letter to his daughter after she kicked out her son out of the house for being gay. It's so perfectly written that it crops up on social media every so often.

The letter is beautiful because it's written by a man who may not be with the times, but his heart is in the right place.

It first appeared on the Facebook page FCKH8 and a representative told Gawker that the letter was given to them by Chad, the 16-year-old boy referenced in the letter.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."