Tokens of Change

Dallas, Texas

I will admit that this quintessential, long-exposure shot of the Dallas city skyline might be uninspired and dull. However, getting that shot is anything but.

Also, Full Disclosure:

At the time of this writing, my biological brother, Ross, currently lives in some kind of homeless encampment in Portland, Oregon. Not because he is doing a sociological study or preparing for a film role, no, but because... um, HE IS HOMELESS.

Sadly, he continues to struggle with drugs and alcohol. That could have easily been me. So, as you can imagine, I have some very personal, complicated, and conflicted views about BEGGARS, homeless people, INCARCERATION, mental illness, DRUG ADDICTION, and vagrancy. ******************************


If you want the skyline from this angle, there’s no avoiding it, you are going to have to drive to South Dallas. And if you are in South Dallas, chances are, you are going to encounter homeless people while you are shooting.

Oftentimes, as a photographer, the desire to get the best shot or the best angle of something will take you to some less than savory places. You will frequently find yourself in places you probably wouldn’t have any reason to be otherwise, and if you did find yourself there by accident, you’d probably make every effort not to get out of your car. But as a photographer, not only are you going to do exactly that — get out of your car— you are going to bring with you thousands of dollars’ worth of (very steal-able and very pawn-able) glass lenses and equipment.

An infinite number of other professions make a lot more money than photographers, that is an undeniable fact. However, very few of these professionals carry around such a great deal of their assets with them, in their car or on their person.

A wealthy banker isn’t likely to have all the money that he manages with him in his car, in the form of suitcases full of cash. Furthermore, if he did, he probably wouldn’t then drive to an area of town notorious for homelessness and muggings and proceeded to get out of the car with all those suitcases and walk around in the bad area of town at night. That would be insane.


And yet, this is exactly what photographers essentially find themselves doing on a disturbingly regular basis. We have to knowingly go into dangerous areas, and just hope that no one decides to mess with us. Most vagrants know that if they stole a person’s wallet, chances are, there’d be very little cash money inside. And with credit cards, they could really only make a few purchases (if that) before the card is reported as stolen and shut off. But a $5,000 camera body and a $5,000 zoom lens? Whoa, buddy! You can get real money for these items at any pawn shop, and a decent amount of it, too. What’s stopping them from overpowering me and just taking it? Nothing, really.

It's likely I’d probably get pretty beaten up in the process, if not killed, so my mindset going into any precarious situation like this is always just to hope against hope that no one decides that today’s the day they want to risk it all. That today’s the day they wanna say f*ck it, and take their chances trying to wrestle a camera away from a skinny white guy. Ive been mugged before, and I’ve had my car broken into on multiple occasions, so I don’t feel like this is an unrealistic fear.

There are desperate people in the world. Plus, this is what I always think: how would I feel if I was minding my own business, and some little shit in a nice car pulled up and leapt out with $10,000 around his neck? This tent might not be a house, but it’s where I live, and this f*cker has come to my turf, to my area, to parade his wealth around in front of me like an oblivious peacock? Who does he think he is?

Similar thoughts go through my head when I’m in a developing country and have to walk past DESTITUTE PEOPLE with all my fancy camera gear. I don’t know if everyone is aware of this, but once you’ve made the decision to photograph in a given location, there’s really no more hiding it. Zoom lenses are heavy and enormous, and there’s really no way to CARRY THEM SECRETLY or discretely, or to not look like you are parading your expensive things around.

On so many occasions, I’ll start thinking, “What are you doing, Ryan? What are you really doing with your life? Are you making a difference? With your silly photosgraphs? Why are you here, not just in this developing country or in this bad part of South Dallas, but on earth?”


As you can see, whether at home or abroad, homelessness is an issue that is guaranteed to put me in a conflicted, melancholy mood, as without fail, I begin contemplating and struggling with all the societal issues that most of us try keep to sequestered in the back of our minds. We keep these thoughts walled off, and this is the mental equivalent of rolling up our car window as we approach a homeless person on the corner. It’s our need to create some kind of barricade between us and them, something to help us think about them a little less. But when you’re on the street with your camera, there’s no more separation, physical or mental, between you and them. The window has been rolled down, and the cognitive dissonance that it lets in is often deafening.


Back when I was still drinking, I felt a special kinship with these destitute people, I felt like I was just a few bad decisions away from potentially joining them out on the streets myself. So, all it would take was one homeless person asking me for money to derail my entire day. It would send me into a spiral. If I denied them money at first, I’d sometimes be so stricken with guilt that I’d loop back around and give them some of my change. I guess to make myself feel better? But often that decision would come with consequences, too.

In Los Angeles, I had a bad habit of keeping all my spare change in the cup holder of my console. It was easy for me to get to right there, when I needed to feed a parking meter, but it also meant that it was instantly visible to any homeless person who came up to my car window. After making the mistake of giving it all to a panhandler one day and then later realizing I had no quarters for parking, I would make sure to cover it up with a piece of paper or something each day before heading out, so the homeless people couldn’t see it and think I was being stingy. Which I guess I was? But man, being downtown with no quarters for street parking could be a day ruiner!

Then I’d start thinking about how selfish that was, to be worried about the inconvenience of parking, when the person on the corner doesn’t even have a car to park, or a house to live in and…. see? A spiral. And then I’d end up just driving to the liquor store and begin day-drinking to try and make all these threads stop unraveling.

When you get sober, many of your personal problems go away, that is true; but all of the societal problems do not. The cognitive dissonance remains, as does the need to squelch it somehow, but now without the convenient use of any drugs or alcohol. Also, as a sober photographer, there is still a frequent need to go to UNSAVORY LOCATIONS, and I still frequently find myself face to face with these societal problems— with homelessness, poverty, and destitution. That didn’t change. Neither did my conflicted feelings about photographing any of these things without permission, or the fact that I am regularly putting myself and/or my possessions in danger.

However, even with the easy pawn-ability of my camera gear and lenses, the last time my Jeep was broken into (on the streets of Los Angeles) I was reminded of something. A little goes a long way, and sometimes even a token of empathy is enough. In some cases, quite literally, tokens.


Upon exiting my loft, I could see my car window was busted out, and there was glass all over the street. I knew I shouldn’t have been so lazy as to leave my mountain bike, the most expensive bike I’d ever owned, in the backseat of my Jeep. Now I would pay the price for my foolishness. Not only for the bike, but now also to replace a busted-out window.

But as I got closer, I realized the bike was still there. They left the $2,000 bike, and took…. the $2 worth of quarters that was sitting (and easily visible) in my console’s cup holder. They took my cup full of change.

On another occasion, I had a car full of lights and camera gear, and I had pulled up to the night club where I was going to be shooting to talk to the manager about setting up. I was inside less than ten minutes, but in that amount of time, someone had broken into my car and stolen not any of the super expensive lenses or lights but…. my gym bag full of sweaty exercise clothes, and my tennis shoes.

I have so many similar stories, that a pattern began to emerge. People were stealing the lowest hanging fruit. While infinitely more valuable, bikes and lights and camera gear are not only large and heavy, but they also require a lot of additional work before they can be useful, before they can be bartered or turned into cash. The things that were being stolen from me seemed to follow a different logic than my purely quantitative one.

I was thinking in terms of a thing's numerical monetary value, and therefore, I was only taking the time to hide and to protect my most expensive things. What people seemed to be stealing, however, were things that have an immediate utility, or that were simply very, very, easy to take.


Therefore now, much in the way that I would never intentionally go downtown without quarters to feed the meter, now I try to never enter someone else’s territory without tokens of my empathy. And by tokens, I mean literally tokens, aka, quarters. Am I making a difference with my photos? In the grand scheme of things? Who is to say.

But if I bring people living on the streets a few quarters and give them some of my spare change when they ask for it, I can tell myself that what I gave them is more money than they would have had otherwise, if I’d stayed away never visited their turf at all.

And that pitiful, tenuous, logic is the best justification I have been able to come up with, to allow me to keep doing what it is I’m doing, and continue photographing the world. Quarters may not be the kind of big world change that we ultimately need, but even though it is relatively small, it is a form of change, nonetheless.


ADDENDUM: I had planned to end it there, but a consideration that has taunted me as of late, is -- now that we have an all but cashless society, I would have to make a weekly trip to the bank SPECIFICALLY/SOLELY to get out cash money to give to homeless people. Even the meters run on credits cards and apps now, so the only time I need cash would be to give to homeless people and panhandlers. And maybe the occasional valet.

But if I'm going to the bank solely to get out money for the homeless, at what point does that start to feel like a whole lot of premeditated effort, and at what point do I decide that my efforts could probably be better spent donating to a vetted and bonafide charity?

There's no joke here when I say that the move to digital currency must be really irritating for those who depend on the kindness of strangers. How many times have you wanted to help someone, truly you did, but you simply had no change to give?


Read more about this HERE.