This photographer uses his experience to inform his images.
Inspired by his mother’s love of photography from a young age, photographer Leroy Skalstad took up the hobby during his time serving in the Vietnam War. He experimented with 35mm photography, which was standard at the time, and now continues his work digitally as he captures those living on the streets.
Skalstad hasn’t always been able to own a camera and, in fact, he was homeless for a time upon returning to the states following his military service. As he awaited a decision from the Veterans Administration about his pay and housing, he found himself on the streets with nowhere to go and little hope. It was during this time that he continued to develop an eye for quality photos and yearned for a device with which to capture them.
“Living on the streets was an experience for me in learning the human condition. It also showed me that we can communicate a lot without even saying a single word—that quick glance says so much. My mind’s eye started to form images and I so wished I had a camera to capture and share with others what I was experiencing,” he told My Modern Met.
Skalstad himself was the subject of photographs taken by other artists while living on the streets, and recalled one moment that reminds him that everyone is human and that trust is key when walking around in potentially dangerous areas.
“When I asked [the photographer] about his equipment he looked threatened and scampered away. That really hurt,” he said.
He uses his experiences in the past to inform his images and they have inspired him to give back as well. He volunteers at St. Ben’s Community Meal Program in Milwaukee and has been shooting the photos for the calendar for 22 years now. The veteran’s favorite photo actually spawned from a moment when people were waiting for the meal van and he snapped a candid shot of Don and Kathy, two 19-year-olds waiting alongside other homeless people.
Whenever Skalstad approaches a homeless person about taking their photo, he always keeps his camera in the bag initially. He typically starts off by buying them a cup of coffee and asking them to share their story and, in turn, sharing some of his as well. If this conversation leads to a photo session, he will then take out the camera if his subject feels comfortable.
“The most common question I get is ‘How do you want me to do this?’ I tell them just look right into my lens like you are sharing your story with others,” Skalstad said of his portrait sessions with homeless subjects.
The formerly homeless veteran also uses his photos to humanize his subjects in a world that so often demonizes those living on the streets. He explained that common misconceptions about being homeless is that it’s simple to hoist oneself out of homelessness by getting a job and securing housing. Oftentimes, there is a huge underlying problem that the person is battling and the complexity of the situation can be paralyzing.
Homelessness is so complex that most cities don’t know how to properly combat it, but one step that cities are taking is to house homeless people first and then subsequently treat the underlying problem. Whether it’s a mental illness, substance abuse, or an unstable work life, these cities are offering services that allow the homeless person to transition from the streets to stability and first giving them temporary shelter. This is just one of many approaches being used around the world, and of course many other cities disagree with the method, but it’s important for the homeless crisis to be addressed in some way.