Faced with the task of organizing an exhibit about homeless people, Dorrit Kirk Fitzgerald decided the idea of an arm's length examination was out of the question.
"Instead of doing an art for art's sake show where artists who are not homeless would interpret the homeless, I wanted to address the homeless community itself and let them show me the direction I needed to go," Fitzgerald said recently.
The result is "Who I Am Not," at the Irvine Fine Arts Center through Feb. 3, which features 28 autobiographical photographs by 13 homeless people as well as works on the subject by others who are not homeless.
The images by the homeless, people living at the Santa Ana Civic Center, form a straightforward, unsentimental statement about daily life: A child stands alone in the sunshine, a row of shopping carts is laden with belongings, friends chat and eat together, others clown in the street, a man wrapped in a blanket sleeps beneath a tree.
Fitzgerald, the fine arts center's curator, arrived at an underpinning theme for the exhibit through hands-on research that proved revelatory.
Last October, she began to distribute food and hygiene kits at the Santa Ana Civic Center with help from SPIN (Street People In Need), a nonprofit organization providing services to Orange County homeless who officials estimate number about 8,000. The experience, which led to friendships with homeless people she met, made her profoundly aware of her own deeply ingrained beliefs, she said.
"I came to understand that I represented the typical person in the community that doesn't know and probably doesn't want to know about the homeless and I had to deal with my own bias and prejudice," she said.
"I went through such a transformation myself along the way that I felt the most beneficial thing would be to do an exhibit about perception--about how we see others, not just the homeless, but anyone we might see as 'other.' "
Fitzgerald attempted to convey her theme by juxtaposing photographs by non-homeless artists and other depictions of the homeless, such as newspaper cartoons with homeless people's photographs. These pictures were taken with cameras donated for the project by Fuji Photo Film USA Inc.
"It's evident that only the homeless can portray themselves as directly and humanistically as possible," Fitzgerald said.
Clyde Weinman, one of several officials Fitzgerald worked with to better understand the local homeless community, said he helped her to see a larger reality of the situation. Executive director of Irvine Temporary Housing, which provides homeless families with temporary housing and other services, Weinman introduced her to several homeless families in Featherly Regional Park in Yorba Linda.
"Most feel the homeless are degenerate people that society has cast aside; just an enlarged picture of the old hobo, people who are lazy and don't want to work," Weinman said. "But homeless people are people with open minds and open hearts that just had a bad turn. They could be you or I or anyone else."
Fitzgerald said she hopes to change viewers' consciousness. "If I could just change a person's thinking for a second so they aren't making a judgment filtered through bias . . . I don't look at anyone the same any more. My life has completely changed as a result of this show."