On Our Cover: "Living in the Shadows" and "When Two Become One" by Russell Orrell, as part of his "In the Shadow of the River" series on the Los Angeles River and homelessness.
In the shadow of the river
The 2015 Jizo Peace Center Humanitarian Award goes to Russell Orrell for his photography of the Los Angeles River and his dedication to documenting the lives of the homeless with dignity and beauty.
A Note from the Editor
Halloween. Masks. The go together, right?
Just pull a little piece of cardboard, plastic or plaster over our head and Voila! We transform. We lose our everyday selves to become someone else for a night, then remove the mask and return to our normal lives the next morning.
But what if you did not put that mask on yourself?
What if it was put on you by someone else, and you couldn't take it off? What if the character they had you become caused you to lose, little by little, the person you knew yourself to be?
For the homeless, like the immigrant now surging across borders in Europe, the mask that has been slipped over their faces makes them, as individuals, invisible.
The very nature of their dislocation from their place in society draws a mask over the faces, obscuring who they are, reflecting back to an anxious public only its own fears of the unknown.
The homeless are often seen as outlaws, as intimidating aliens. We try to look through them, pretend they are not there. They are not people, neighbors, families.
Our Halloween issues looks into the face of our own fears--just the way Halloween was intended to do.
This is a story of a photographer who quietly traveled a path of taking the masks off the faces of the displaced.
Russell Orrell shows people building lives at the unlikely margins of an urban storm. He shows humor, irony, warmth and beauty along with distress and desperation he discovers. He humanizes.
Happy Halloween, Patric Hedlund, Editor
Based on an essay by Ruth Handy of the Jizo Peace Center (with P.Hedlund)
When Russ Orrell was a 22-year-old kid moving from Texas to Southern California, he drove over a bridge as he was coming to his destination. He was struck by the bone-dry concrete ribbon he saw strung out below him. It was the famously homely Los Angeles River.
Eighteen years later, at age 40, following a career in aerial photography and construction, Orrell's curiosity drew him "to go down there" to explore. He came to love photographing what he discovered. At first he was shy--careful to avoid taking images of people. He photographed the diverse forms of wildlife that live in the parts of the L.A. River that have water and even riverbank ecologies. He enjoyed taking picture of birds, contrasting their wild images with the cityscape surrounding them.
Slowly, he began to document the humorous and haunting images in the graffiti galleries spread across the concrete river banks and under bridges.
Gradually, his lens turned to some of the people creating the graffiti. That was followed by discovery of remote colonies of river people living there.
Orrell's "In the Shadow of the River" collection of images show his travels from one end of the river to the other, watching different groups socialize. Seeing the types of structures people construct. Documenting the small dramas playing out with the power of the city looming overhead.
He says his experiences photographing the homeless have triggered "a quantum leap forward" in his skills. He is more comfortable now taking photos of the people. They ask him for portraits to send to their families, he says. He sometimes takes cigarettes to give out to people as they talk to him. "It is a form of currency there," he explains.
He began with "a homeless guy who seemed approachable" with his wife and a transgender man.
One time he contacted the Veterans Administration to help move a homeless, wheel-chair-bound paraplegic veteran in to housing. The vet was living by the river. Russ saw him being pushed across the uneven ground by friends.
Now Orrell is deeply concerned about the staggering increase in homelessness in the recent census. He explores how people cope over the years as they live this way.
Zen of the witness
Mr. Orrell describes the artistic side of his photography as an ability to go into an altered state.
"Time falls away, and the sense of self evaporates," he said.
He explains that his first job is to master the mechanics of his art, then let his intuition act without intrusion by thoughts of self.
Another part of his brain takes over, he says, and he becomes an observer. He can sense a peak moment coming between people, and then something unfolds. He can be immersed for a half hour to two hours until, all of a sudden, the shutter goes off. The reverie is broken.
"Oh, my God, I got it," he has said, as if waking from a dream.
Orrell feels that you can't yourself add the elements that make a powerful photo. You must just surrender to basic creative feelings. It is not a conscious process for him, he says but "almost a genetic process going back generations." It is an ancient place.
He said he has a sense of emotion after taking such a photo. He is able to see the "geometry" people exude in a situation as a mosaic rather than an emotional give and take.
"Looking at the photographs, I feel a sense of empathy that I wouldn't feel otherwise--a sense of connection long after I come home."
His current projects include helping to set up a performing arts program for children at Sunday Assembly in Hollywood.
He is also assisting a Swiss family, Hans and Ola Rosling, who work with the United Nations. They write about the growing homeless problem in the United States and other countries.
With a sense of ironic humor, people make lives beneath the concrete bridges of the Amtrak tracks and reeway overpasses. They build shelters, friendships and ad hoc community.
Russell Orrell (above) received the Pine Mountain-based Jizo Peace Center Humanitarian Award for 2015. Shown here, receiving it, Orrell splits his time between Los Angeles and the Pine Mountain community.
His evolution from timid, distant shots of humans living among the concrete bridges of the Los Angeles river illuminated an intimate portrait of life there.