A Photojournalist Focuses Her Lens on Homelessness

After 15 years working abroad, photojournalist Susan Robens returned to Portland, Oregon, to focus her lens on homelessness in the United States.

If Susan Robens had her way, she would teach the world to shoot photographs instead of guns. In the 15 years she has spent abroad as a working peace journalist, she has seen her share of volatile global hot spots and post-conflict reconstruction.

“I‘ve seen well-meaning people build clinics in villages, where they stood empty until the sheep used them as a place to sleep.” While people shrugged and asked each other why no one came to the clinic, Robens saw the answer as obvious: “No one ever asked them if they wanted a clinic.”

Roben's graduate studies in conflict analysis and visual anthropology brought her to the Middle East. She hoped to use photography workshops to facilitate collective insight into the needs and priorities among people living in conflict-ridden regions. Nine years ago, Susan began the Crossing Borders project on the West Bank. She worked with a group of Palestinian women, hoping to empower their voice of self-determination. Robens distributed disposable cameras to the group and met with them weekly. She encouraged them to share printed images that captured the world they knew.

After the initial funding for her project was exhausted, Robens went from helping create artifacts to helping excavate them. She worked on archeological digs for the Albright Institute around the city of Jerusalem. “Archeology is the other great love of my life.” Her observations while in Israel affirmed her belief that conflict is identity-based—it robs people of a collective identity, transforming communities and individuals during wartime, sometimes permanently.

Her travels took her to Egypt, Italy, and then to Iraq in 2003. Robens always positioned her camera squarely between herself and the violence and chaos around her. She was aware of her place as a teller of the stories of others. Robens remained committed to Crossing Borders in hopes that unheard voices could keep telling their untold stories. Over the last nine years, the project’s disposable 35-millimeter cameras have captured the tented horizons of Port au Prince; Haiti the narrow streets of Florence, Italy; the religious pilgrimages in Medjugorje, Bosnia; and the ominous checkpoints outside of Ramallah in the West Bank.

Just before returning from abroad, Robens wondered if things she had heard about the United States were true. “I couldn’t believe that hardworking families were losing their homes and ending up on the streets.” When she arrived in Portland, Robens saw for herself the magnitude of homelessness in the United States. She knew what she had to do.

“I want to hear from the homeless population and find out what their story is,” says Robens of her Portland Homeless project. Residents of the Portland Rescue Mission and Shepherd’s Door will soon be able to join the photo workshops, create and refine their images, and select the ones that tell their story. “We will take each story and make it into a short narrated film.” Robens makes use of social media and video sharing to reach a broader audience. In the fall, each participant will be asked to contribute one of their prints for an exhibition.

What does she hope to accomplish?

If Robens has her way, there will be “more people getting involved, less judgment, more understanding about homelessness and support for the working poor. We need to hold our country together and those who have the wisdom to see have a responsibility to share.”

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Niki Miller
Last Updated: 04/19/2016