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DU Museum of Anthropology

A Photoethnography Exhibit with Thomas Carr

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“I don’t have the answers, and I doubt I ever will, but I’m working on ways to help. Sharing stories is what I have.” - Thomas Carr

Thomas Carr

Thomas Carr is an anthropologist, archaeologist, and photographer who lives in Denver, Colorado. He works in both digital and film, producing both darkroom prints and archival inkjet prints. His work has been shown in numerous juried, group, and solo exhibitions over the last 35 years. He has also lectured extensively on the history of photography, archaeology, and visual ethnography. His artistic influences include Eugene Atget, Clarence John Laughlin, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Fay Godwin, Francesca Woodman, and Gregory Crewdson.

“As a young photographer in the 1980s, I found myself drawn towards making images of places with subtle indications of a past human presence. This led to my pursuit of a career in anthropology and archaeology, which has allowed me to visit many significant historic sites and associated landscapes. Having been trained in photography, I endeavor to document the essence of these places in visual terms. This subtle sense of presence is what I seek in my photography.”

When Carr began documenting homeless camps, he carefully considered how to conduct the project in a respectful and ethical way. He drew from his training in ethnography, researched ethics guidelines from the American Anthropological Association, and collaborated with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. As he builds relationships with people experiencing homelessness in the Front Range, he is careful to obtain consent from his partners before recording their stories or taking their photographs. His work allows his partners the agency to share their stories if they wish.

* The names of Carr’s community partners have been changed.

9619 people experienced homelessness in Colorado in 2019. That’s almost the population of Glenwood Springs. US Dept of Housing and Urban Development, 2019 Report

  • Man in front of camp
  • Image of camp
  • image of camp
  • image of camp
  • image of camp

Comforts of Home

“I asked if I could take a picture of them in their ‘home’ and they replied, ‘this is definitely not a home." -Thomas Carr

Jeff* and Valerie* live in a camp next to an abandoned building. They stay outside when the weather is good, and move inside when it rains or snows. Their camp is neat and orderly, complete with a system for receiving mail and a small library. They are clear, however, that this dwelling is, “definitely not a home.” 

Carr’s partners are creative and intentional in the ways they bring the comforts of home to the places where they find shelter. Some of the camps he encounters are raked or swept often to keep them tidy. Many feature cooking materials and ways to hang the laundry. Toys and lunchboxes underline that Colorado has 2,356 people in families with children experiencing homelessness.

In 2018, Colorado had the third highest population of families experiencing homelessness in the nation. 32% of those families are not in a shelter U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • James* and Valerie*
  • Toy on ground
  • Perfume bottle on ground
  • Long view of camp
  • Rake on the ground
  • Tarp on ground at camp
  • Laundry hanging from tree
  • Cooking pot

Community and Relationships

"He told me about his camp and said that he had inherited it from another homeless fella who left the area. He says he helps younger homeless folks in the effort to keep them safe." - James*

While photographing a camp in Littleton, Carr received a dinner invitation. Later that night, Stan*, Chris*, and Lyle* served him flank steak and Cheetos as they chatted about living outside. Several others living in the park also joined the meal. Stan*, a former Army Ranger, has chosen to live outside for the last ten years, diverting his government benefits to support his daughter and grandchildren. Stan’s* experience as an Army Ranger makes him an important part of a community in the park that shares resources and expertise to help each other survive. 

Many members of the homeless community work together to solve problems, stay warm, and stay safe. Jimmy* recounted that he inherited his camp from a community member who moved away. He pays that generosity forward by training people new to the lifestyle in tips and tricks of living outside. Sharing resources and expertise helps to build bonds between those experiencing homelessness, establishing relationships that help people navigate their world. 

The challenge of mobility, however, threatens these communities. Carr’s partners must continually change locations in order to avoid arrest or loitering charges. Wolf*, like many of Carr’s partners, stacks all his belongings on a bicycle to move around. He rides across the city with a sleeping bag on the back and belongings hanging from the handlebars. He keeps moving because he has few connections in the downtown area, and considers himself “a bit of a loner.”

1/7th of people experiencing homelessness in Colorado had served in the military US Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Men on bikes
  • Artwork on wall
  • Man showing camp
  • View of camp
  • Book and bag on ground
  • Man sitting at camp
  • Man in hat sitting at camp
  • Man sitting at camp

Safety and Risk

​​​​​​“I’ve already died and I’ve come back from it. I can’t be hurt any more than I already have.” - Cindy*

Living outside can be perilous. Colorado’s extreme weather exposes those without protective clothing to the ravages of sun, wind, rain, cold, and snow. Camps located along the river frequently flood, and inhabitants face the dangers of cold, disease, or even drowning. Improvised cooking and heating implements, like propane, can be extremely unstable and dangerous. Assault, the dangers of substance abuse, and arrest are constant threats. While shelters and community groups attempt to offer respite, long term support networks can be difficult to find and harder to navigate.

When Carr met Cindy*, she seemed sad and distant. She told him she’d struggled with drugs and the law and had endured abuse. As Carr listened, she said “I’ve already died and I’ve come back from it. I can’t be hurt any more than I already have.” Pedro* echoed her sentiments, sharing that he’s been assaulted and accused of criminal activity many times. “If I was a criminal, like a drug dealer or a thief, I wouldn’t be homeless, would I?”

Carr believes that some of his partners could move past homelessness if offered the right opportunity. Others, he feels, need a more consistent and long term structural support system. For his partners who struggle with mental health concerns or addiction, healthcare and social support can be hard to find.

Of those experiencing homelessness in Colorado last year, 23% had no form of shelter U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2019 report

  • Drug paraphernalia on the ground
  • Mitten on ground
  • Photo of flooded camp at river
  • Bottle in plastic
  • Writing on rock
  • Camp in tunnel
  • Woman sitting on rocks
  • Man sitting on furniture

Law and Policy

"He would rather not have to move and lose many of his belongings, but he said he tends to go with the flow and feels that the police are just doing their jobs." - Martin*

Within the Denver city limits, transiency is criminal. People experiencing homelessness are subject to charges of vagrancy and loitering, confiscation of goods, and as of 2020, violation of the camping ban. This ruling limits where members of the homeless community can sleep and take shelter, how long they can remain in one place, and how many material items they can keep with them. It sparked controversy between those who felt that the homeless community introduced health, safety, and substance abuse risks to neighborhoods around Denver and others who questioned where those without homes were supposed to go.

Some of Carr’s partners voiced frustration with the camping ban, discussing times they had been evicted or had goods confiscated by law enforcement. Chris* highlighted that without an identification card, which requires a permanent address to obtain, most of those affected by the ban were unable to vote on it. Some spoke of the challenges of constant mobility, and the barriers to finding consistent social support. Martin* told Carr that he understands that the police have to do their jobs. He is frustrated with the burden of constantly moving and losing his belongings. He said that “individual officers may be good people, but it’s too hard to trust them.” Others, like Samuel* sympathized with the health concerns and safety risks created by having so many people sharing exposed spaces, saying the camps have gotten “too large, dirty, and unsafe” to be sustainable. He had been volunteering to help keep some areas clean.

For those living outside, encounters with police mean sleep must come in short bursts. 49% of survey respondents reported 2 hours or less of uninterrupted sleep and 37% reported less than four hours of total sleep a night.

  • American Flag on ground
  • Man in hat
  • No camping signs
  • Mattress on ground
  • Tent at camp
  • Man holding picture of former camp

One Paycheck Away

"Homelessness does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone, and it affects everyone.  It does not recognize sex, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc." - Thomas Carr

Part of Carr’s inspiration for the Traces of Home project came from a difficult period after being unexpectedly laid off from work. His family struggled, and worked with public assistance to get back on their feet. “I realized that we were perilously close to not being able to pay for food and shelter. When I started back to work doing archaeological surveys and encountering homeless camps, it was suddenly more personal,” he said. 

As Denver’s population has exploded, growing nearly 20% since 2010, housing costs have risen along with it. In 2011, the median cost of rent in Denver was $1019 each month. In 2020, that amount was $1606. During that time, wages have remained stagnant while other cost of living factors have skyrocketed. These factors include food costs, goods and services, as well as healthcare. One of Carr’s partners recounted having to choose between chemo treatment for her cancer and housing. She chose treatment.

As we developed this exhibit, we were all moved by the breathtaking nearness of these experiences. In a 2018 study conducted across four Denver colleges, including students from the University of Denver, 18% of respondents reported they had experienced homelessness during the previous year.

Many of Carr’s partners described the homes they once owned, the careers they once had, and the families they once supported (or still do). As we learned their stories and became familiar with their faces we worked to confront the perception that their reality is fundamentally different from ours. As Carr noted, “Homelessness does not discriminate, it can happen to anyone, and it affects everyone.  It does not recognize sex, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.” In some cases, the realities of homelessness are only one missed paycheck away.

78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck

  • W2 and baby image
  • Man and woman at camp
  • Vodka bottle on ground
  • Man in sleeping bag
  • Shoe on ground
  • Apology sign

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