Lehigh University Art Gallery & Ann Marie Rousseau
Ricardo Viera: Has the perception
of homelessness changed since you published your book Shopping
Bag Ladies: Homeless Women Speak About Their Lives in 1981?
Ann Marie Rousseau: Yes,
I think it has changed. I can say that there is both more and
less interest in homelessness today. When I first worked on
my book in the 1970s there was very little interest in
the subject of homelessness, and particularly little understanding
of what was happening for women. Its been difficult for
people to remember that homelessness was not a subject in the
way that it has become. In fact people would often say to me
that there were actually very few homeless women. I knew
this wasnt true, because I worked at the one municipal
shelter available in New York City for women, and I saw them
turn away women every night. This meant that there was almost
nowhere else for a woman to go.
R.V.: Where did they
A.M.R.: Outside. There were
53 beds for women and 3000 for men. A man could almost certainly
get a bed if he wanted one. Albeit a grungy cot in a flop house.
But women more likely walked the streets. Since then a law has
been passed saying that no one seeking shelter can be turned
away. However, in practice what this often means is waiting
for days on a chair in an emergency assistance unit for a bed
to become available. So now there is a perception that more
is being done, but in fact, many people are still without a
place to live.
R.V.: How long were you
engaged in your project and how did you get started?
A.M.R.: The work in this
series really covered a ten-year period of my life. I first
came to know homeless women when I was asked to give a workshop
in a shelter. In talking to the women, I wondered what had brought
them to this point in their lives. I found their stories incredibly
compelling and gradually began to tape interviews. I developed
a workshop in photography in which the women photographed their
vision of the city and the shelter. This work was shown at the
Metropolitan Museum with text by the woman about their experiences
in the shelter and in the workshop. It was the first time anyone
had really focused on homeless women and it got a lot of media
attention. I eventually decided to expand the interviews and
travel around the country to see what it was like for homeless
women in other cities. This is the work that became the book.
R.V.: Did you ever disguise
yourself as a homeless person in order to meet people, and what
was it like for you going to other parts of the country?
A.M.R.: It was much harder
to find women. I had an easy situation in New York where I knew
certain women for years and years. In other cities I had to
figure out how to meet people and win their confidence. I did
it mostly by hanging out for hours and days in the worst parts
of town, but I never posed as a homeless person myself and I
always got permission to photograph and interview. Generally,
if I found someone interested in working with me, I stuck with
them for as long as I could. The worst part was when I would
have to leave. I is an extremely bonding experience to both
listen to and tell your life story. I was always profoundly
moved by what they shared with me. There was no way we were
going to be able to "keep in touch" and we both knew
R.V.: Did you ever try to
help the women?
A.M.R.: I gave them small
amounts of money, bought foods and tried to connect them with
social services when I could, but sometimes things didnt
work out no matter what I did. I actually found a room for one
woman and connected her up with the Social Security payments
that she was owed, but after getting everything set up, she
simply disappeared and I never saw her again. That story is
in the book. I retrospect I think the biggest "help"
I gave them was simply my willingness and interest in listening
R.V.: Whats the difference
between New York and other cities?
A.M.R.: I discovered that
New York was one of the only cities in the country that had
a municipal shelter for women. Everywhere else I found only
small private shelters, usually run by religious organizations.
Some cities had nothing at all. This has all changed.
R.V.: Is it different for
a woman to be homeless than a man?
A.M.R.: Yes. Its horrible
for both, but there are many differences. For one, women are
in much more danger than men. I found that they had to say up
all night to protect themselves, so they had to sleep more often
during the day, and as a result would be more sleep disoriented.
Sleep depravation is probably one of the worst effects of homelessness.
Women tended not to go where homeless men congregated so they
would avoid some soup kitchens and breadlines and had more difficulty
getting food. When I did this work there were far fewer services
for women than for men, (as in the number of beds) and I believe
it is still the same.
R.V.: What do you think
the biggest issue around homelessness is today?
A.M.R.: I think the big
factor now is the increasing number of homeless families, especially
families with single parents and young children. I think this
is also where the most hope lies. If the children in these families
can be helped, then there is the possibility for change.
R.V.: Are you still doing
work about homelessness?
A.M.R.: Even after finishing
the book found that I couldnt let the subject go and continued
to work on it for a number of years. I was obsessed. I came
to a point where I realized that I had to do something completely
different or go nuts, so I took some time off and went back
to my work as a painter which is what I studied in graduate
school. Eventually, I began painting on my photographs. Without
knowing why, I began photographing the interiors of abandoned
houses that I found in upstate New York and then altering them
with inks, dyes, and paint. Later I came to understand how these
abandoned houses were related to the abandoned people I had
been photographing, so I really hadnt gotten away from
the subject. This work became "The Light in Rooms"
R.V.: What are you working
A.M.R.: In the last two
years I have been photographing inside a huge complex of an
abandoned mill in Western Massachusetts. Like everything I do,
I was drawn by some unnameable force to photograph these damaged
buildings, which I found spectacularly beautiful even though
theyve been allowed to fall into ruin for about twenty
years. To me they were about another kind of abandonment, having
to do with work and the loss of jobs. The mill once supported
the whole town. When the mill closed anyone who could moved
away. Now there is a project to revitalize the community by
turning the buildings into a center for art. All of my work
ends up being about some kind of suffering, loss and survival
and my work in the mill has been another way to express that.
Related Links: Shopping
Bag Ladies | The Benediction
| The Museum Project