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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Multi-season photography project opens in Smith

While it can be all to easy to look through the poverty in urban areas as near as Des Moines, artistic passion drove Lawrence Sumulong ’10, who also serves as the S&B photo editor, into the daily lives of the homeless.

The doors to a new photography exhibit opened last Monday at Smith Gallery. The installation was composed entirely by Sumulong and is entitled “Levee”. Capturing instantaneous flashes of both calm and chaos, Sumulong’s project follows the lives of several homeless folk through their day-to-day experiences in Des Moines. After accompanying them through multiple events in their lives, Sumulong shot and chose the photographs, along with writings by the subjects themselves, that he thought best depicted the Levee ethos.

The project began last fall when Sumulong contacted multiple poverty-outreach organizations in Des Moines—namely, Hope Builders and Jappa Outreach—with a photography project about homeless culture in mind. Through these organizations, Sumulong was introduced to Al, Robert and Rita (last names withheld), among others, all of whom inhabit the levees of Des Moines. Sumulong went on to develop personal relationships with these people while sharing their experiences and tracking the course of their lives over the seasons. “I was afraid they would view me as exploitive,” Sumulong said.

Instead, Sumulong’s commitment to engage with his subjects on a human level resulted in a far more honest connection and Sumulong checked in on his subjects often, including phone calls during the winter holidays.

To give the homeless a chance to express their own personal narrative, Sumulong chose a few of their handwritten letters to hang alongside the photographs. “It is important to have their words speak for themselves,” Sumulong said. In one letter, Al, the primary subject of Sumulong’s project, remarks upon his “so-called homelessness.” In another, Rita discusses the unrecognized passage of her birthday and the passage of friends writing, “I lost a friend last week…I loved very much. I hope he knows today.”

While the overall aura of Sumulong’s project borders on the dismal, it also evokes a strong empathy for those without homes. “After working in a homeless shelter this past summer, I tend to have a strong emotional response to these photographs,” Lauren Johnson ’11, who visited the installation, said. All of the images were striking, most especially one of a bruised and weary pregnant woman sitting on a stool, eyes direct and somber, with a colostomy bag resting on her lap.

In addition to representing the commonly conceived lifestyle of homeless people, Sumulong’s project reveals many of the less considered aspects of life in the levee. “Al has a cell phone?” Carolyn Wright ’11, another viewer, asked. The project aims to depict a variety of the elements of the modern homeless person’s lifestyle—including social and technological interactions, nomadic travels and fits of frustrations.

Levee has been a huge success and a patron has already offered to buy prints for an exhibit in Des Moines. However, the exhibit means so much more to Sumulong than just another portfolio asset—it depicts the lives of some of his good friends. Sparking up conversations about local poverty both within the College and without, Levee is as provocative as it is visually stunning.

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