Jim Colburn...Don't Ask

Let's Try And Help

You've seen them in any city in America. A homeless man or woman waving their arms and talking to somebody, yelling at somebody, having an incredibly animated discussion about something that's real important to them at the time. There's only one problem. No one else can see who they're talking to.

That sort of thing scares people. It scares some people a lot. It makes a homeless man or woman even less desirable as a sidewalk companion than a 14-days-without-a-bath hygene regime. They're ignored, shunned, or moved. What can we, as photographers, do to help some of these people?

Cell phones. Yup. Cell phones. Every photographer I know has three or four of the suckers sitting in a drawer at home not being used, not connected to a network or service provider. That old Motorola brick? That Star-Tac that cost you $300 but is now obsolete? The Ericsson that's been replaced by a Nokia with the neon green faceplate? You know where they are and now they can be put to good use.

Find a homeless person and give them the phone. Don't bother to charge the battery, include the charger or tell them about the options. Just give them the phone and say. "The next time you want to talk to anybody, use this phone." What will this do? It could transform the way America looks at those citizens that are a little on the crazy side. Instead of being a raving lunatic screaming at the sky he or she will be transformed into a somewhat angry businessman or a lady with relationship problems. You've seen them, guys in suits walking down the street screaming about "bond yields" and "contract fuck-ups." Women in jeans crying into their cell phones about "the bastard that just dumped me and ran off with an eighteen year old." 

Thousands of homeless people would appear normal because everyone could make believe they were talking to SOMEONE. Lower threat level, less anxiety, maybe more help available in the future as people felt less frightened.

Photographers can help in another way. Time Magazine recently moved its Washington office to another building. During the "what do I take with me" phase, photographer Cynthia Johnson asked me what she could do with a box of old Nikon lenses.

When I say old, I mean old. Some of them weren't even multi-coated, none of them had the connections for those weird-ass Nikon metering systems, and the condition of most could best be described as "well used." But there were a dozen or so functioning lenses in the box. Everything from a 20mm on up to a couple of 75-150mm zooms. No professional in their right mind would want the stuff and if a store had offered $100 for them in a trade I'd have said their buyer was nuts. But they all worked and I was sure that somebody out there could put them to good use.

I managed to find an arts co-op in Boston that offers classes in photography to inner-city youth. They had some Nikon cameras and they loved the idea of their kids being able to shoot with something other than a 50mm lens. In a non-stock deal the co-op got a box of usable lenses and C.J. got a tax deduction that was a lot more valuable than the money she'd have gotten IF she'd been able to sell them.

So when you're cleaning out the equipment locker and start to wonder what to do with that 28mm Nikkor-Q lens that you stuffed in the back 12 years ago, look around for a good 501c3 group that can use your old stuff. Donate it. Take the deduction. Think about the smiles on the faces of a budding photojournalist when he or she gets to look through a wide-angle lens. Then remember to warn them NOT to get into this low-paying, dog-eat-dog business.

Everyone comes out a winner.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed are barely my own much less my employer's so don't blame Time Magazine, Time Inc. or Time-Warner for anything written here. If you have to blame someone try the producers of "That 70's Show" on Fox who manage to bring back many, many painful memories about the lack of fashion sense that lots of my friends seemed to have. Not me you understand.....

Jim Colburn
(aka james.colburn@pressroom.com)

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