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The faces of street life

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Published 12/14/2005

snowsuit.net

Lit by the silver sheen of a computer screen, a man named James, with eyes and skin almost as dark as his black beard, stares out from the monitor. His expression is self-assured, curious and resigned. The only sign that he leads a rough life is the stormy weather in the whites of his eyes.

The shot is typical of the work found on The Snowsuit Effort, Ryan Keberly’s photoblog cataloging Detroit’s destitute street community. Alternately beautiful and painful to view, the site is compelling and disturbing.

It’s also attracting considerable acclaim. Snowsuit.net was listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 50 coolest Web sites of 2005. It’s also been nominated for a Webby Award and a 2005 Bloggie, as well as mentioned in Popular Science and JPG Magazine, and featured on National Public Radio.

After graduating in 2000 from Wayne State University’s fine arts program with a specialty in photography, Keberly lost his desire to shoot pictures. Then, sometime around last spring, the 30-year-old Royal Oak resident realized that as an artist and a person unfulfilled by his day job writing computer code, he needed some risk in his life. That’s when he decided to get in the faces of hundreds of Detroit’s homeless.

Coming to the city in the evening and on weekends, he takes startling, intimate portraits of people living on the streets. He never knows what to expect.

“There was this one guy in Grand Circus Park,” Keberly recalls. “I approached him and he got mad at me, telling me not to bug him, so I backed off. About a week later, he came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m sorry for yelling at you the other day. But you got to understand, when there is a game at Comerica Park, I’m working. I have to pick up as many bottles as I can. That’s my job. But I can talk to you now.’”

After about the 10th shot, Keberly says, his subjects find a comfort level and relax their expressions. Sometimes he chats with them for a few minutes, and sometimes for a few hours, offering money, food or cigarettes in exchange for their time.

An incredibly talented photographer, Keberly says he learned the craft from his father, Charles, who taught him that a photo is not high-quality unless it’s extremely focused. In Keberly’s work, this adds depth to every wrinkle, smudge and scar on a subject’s worn face.

Keberly’s photos are stunning, but the purpose of The Snowsuit Effort isn’t as clear as Joel John Robert’s L.A. Homeless Blog (epath.org/blog). As an advocate for the homeless, Roberts’ unambiguous goal is combating an epidemic, and it’s obvious that his blog is part of that mission.

Keberly, by contrast, is more of an accidental activist. His particular method forces him to interact with the community, rather than simply stare at his environment through a lens. And as a viewer, it forces us to stare square in the eyes of an individual we might otherwise choose to ignore. Maybe that’s what makes Keberly’s effort seem so different. Like the people it showcases, Snowsuit.net refuses to be defined.

He’s sometimes asked if he might be exploiting his subjects. He’s not sure of the answer, but is certain that his intentions are pure.

Occasionally, visitors comment that they would like him to include more documentation about his subjects, rather than the key quote or two he pulls from conversations. But that’s actually what distinguishes a photoblog from other text-based Web logs, even those that are image-heavy. Photoblogs use pictures to serve as the primary narrative.

On the site Photoblogs.org, there are links to 13,653 such blogs from 100 countries. Even among those identified as the “Top Newcomers,” such as Judith Pokaloff’s gorgeous landscapes, Keberly’s work stands out amid the many photographers who choose places rather than people as their subjects. His bold style relies not on angles or shot compositions, but on the uniqueness of human faces.

Send comments to rmazzei@metrotimes.com.

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