Life on The Edge — An Exhibition

Writer / Katie Burrell . Photographer / James Eickman

James Eickman let a single cup of coffee ruin his vacation several years ago, but is making up for it by shining light into the lives of others. Ten years ago, he and his wife walked into a quick service restaurant during a vacation in San Francisco. He witnessed a homeless man attempt to purchase a meal, but walked out with only a cup of coffee because that was all he could afford.

“There my wife and I are spending thousands of dollars on this trip, and all he wanted was a meal,” Eickman said. “It haunted me the rest of the trip and ever since.”

Eickman is a retired photographer. What he once used as a steady, bountiful source of income has turned into mission. He gave up photography 30 years ago and recently purchased another camera with the intention of shooting for passion, not for money.

Now, he takes very intimate, personal pictures of the homeless in Indianapolis and other cities he visits during his travels. Although he began with no purpose for the images, he felt compelled to take them after his trip to San Francisco.

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Why Photos of the Homeless?
Eickman’s approach is unique. He captures these images from the inside of homeless camps. His knowledge of the specific camps in Indianapolis ranges from how safe they are to who lives there. He brings his acquaintances coats, blankets and gloves, and he remembers them by name. When a newcomer turns up, he introduces himself and his mission. “I always ask: permission to photograph someone, Eickman said. “When they ask why and what are you going to do with it, I’d say ‘I don’t know.’”

Recently Eickman found his answer. Six months ago, a fellow photographer asked him to open an exhibit with her. It was then Eickman realized why he spent countless hours and hundreds of dollars to collect hundreds of images: “To raise a voice and a face for the homeless.” Rhonda Clark approached Eickman because of the impact the images had on those who see them and because some are simply, as Eickman recalled Clark saying, “difficult to look at.”

The exhibit will travel to the Greenwood Public Library January 3 and stay there until the end of the month. It features 25 images Eickman has captured at homeless camps in five different states. Some of the images will have stories attached to them, and some of them will tell their stories without words. The one thing Eickman hopes to convey is that judging a person for being homeless isn’t going to solve the problem.

He has seen drug deals, met ex-convicts and others who hit financial hardship too difficult to overcome. Nevertheless, he listens to their stories just the same. “Maybe two weeks ago, they had a job,” he said. “Maybe they are senior citizens and Social Security doesn’t take care of all the bills.”

Others, he said, don’t fit always fit the homeless stereotype. He recently met Robert at a homeless camp. He was freshly shaved, dressed in nice hiking boots and a North Face fleece. Eickman assumed he was there to help, but he later found out that Robert was living there. “Someone can work in information technology, have a $100,000 job and be homeless within weeks of losing their job,” he said.

For those who have a troubled pass, Eickman has learned that there are connections to be made. Those with alcohol and drug problems could be self-medicating a mental illness. They could be homeless because of the mental illness or because of the addiction. Others may have ended up on the wrong side of the law; and although the crime may not have been that bad, it is still difficult to find a job.

Despite having different backgrounds, the homeless community is one that watches out for one another. Eickman tries to keep a stockpile of blankets and coats in his truck, so when he came across Michael, he offered him some. Michael told Eickman that he didn’t want to take more than he could use, but some gloves would be nice because his hands were so cold. He told Eickman to take the blankets down the road to some other people who needed them more. “The homeless people are that way. They share among themselves,” he said. “It’s quite enlightening.”

You Can’t Save Everyone
Despite his efforts to help, Eickman doesn’t expect to save anyone and is careful not to get too close. “When I give him a blanket, I know he’s going to go back to his tent. He’s still going to be cold all night. He’s going to be cold until next spring,” he said.

Therefore, since he can’t change the face of homelessness, he is using his actions and his talents to share it with others. It’s up to his audience to decide how it moves them to take action. The Edge is the featured exhibition at the Greenwood Public Library during the month of January. Eickman and guest speaker Maurice Young will be present from 5-7:30 p.m. January 6 for a special “Meet the Artist” event. Maurice Young, also known as “The Mayor,” made headlines in 2013 when the city shut down a homeless camp beneath the CSX railroad tracks on Davidson Street in Indianapolis. For more information about Eickman’s work, visit his Facebook page.

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