There are ghosts in Santa Barbara. I’ve seen them but I haven’t photographed them. There’s no point. Everyone who lives here has seen them but like the boy who sees dead people in The Sixth Sense they just carry on and ignore them as best they can and learn to live with their presence, at least until they move on.
Let me explain.
In my last post, I talked about the lovely day I’d had, spending 11 hours strolling around Santa Barbara taking photographs, exactly the kind of day I came here to enjoy.
By the time I’d finished taking my photographs it was dark. The picture above is the very last shot I took, a tower which I imagine is commonplace in the States because it features in one of my favourite videogames ‘Nights Into Dreams’. It’s not a brilliant photo but I took it as a reminder of the place and the tower’s association with something I loved. I thought the tower in the game was an artists fabrication and not based on something real.
While I was taking the shot, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned to see a woman in her fifties, skinny, sneakers and socks, a light but scruffy dress, cardigan (I think) and black men’s corduroy jacket. Her hair was a grey bramble that seemed to be taking every direction it could in an attempt to leave her head, thwarted only by her scalps reluctant hold on it and an old fabric band tight around it. She was wearing black, thick-rimmed spectacles, had a beaky nose, clear, bright eyes set in gaunt, sallow features. She was carrying a camera like mine, too, a small compact type with interchangeable lenses. I couldn’t determine whether she was an artistic kook or something worse.
‘Come here,’ she said and beckoned me to follow her. ‘I’ve got to show you something. You must see this. You’ll like it. It’s good.’
We were standing by a crossing. Behind us was a car park with a low wall that stretched back to the underground road and walkway you can also see in the previous article. The car park stretched away from us for some distance but once inside, over the wall, the area between the underpass and the carpark had been planted with trees and bushes from a distance of about ten feet from where we stood right over to the opposite side of the road that crossed over the underpass.
Now, as a city boy born and raised, I know all about people being lured into isolated spots by strangers and then being mugged for valuables, you know, like the camera gear they’ve been parading all around town for 11 hours during the day. So as my curious friend weaved her way through the cars and towards the bushes that followed the path of the wall, I found myself dropping back and checking the corners of the parked cars around me. I could see nothing but that didn’t mean there was nothing. When she reached the edge of the bushes I was a good few feet behind her. She stopped and peered over the edge of some thick shrubs and beckoned me over, pointing at something down on the ground near the wall. Curiosity got the better of me and with a final look behind me to be sure I wasn’t about to be beaten up, I went up to the shrubs and looked where she was pointing.
There was a man there, lying on his back, either asleep or trying to get that way. He was coloured like the earth he was lying on, looking just as dry and weary as the soil after a long day in the hot Californian sun.
I did not photograph him.
He clearly had no home. Any possessions he had were bundled into the dirty sacks and bulging rucksack that lined the wall beside him. He was rootless, alone and lacking in any of the comforts the majority of us take for granted. He had no privacy. It was clear that he had sought out this spot in order to claim what little of it he could there.
Presumably, this woman had seen him enter there. I assume she had photographed him.
Spying a fellow photographer, I imagine she thought it a good thing to share the opportunity for this shot with me.
In truth, I know nothing of the man or the woman. All I can see is that he has nothing of any value and seeks out a little privacy. What little respect I would show him by taking a photograph? Why do such a thing, take the privacy from a man who clearly has so little of anything?
Especially here, in Santa Barbara where the strange fact is, you can see the homeless every night, in numbers, without any problem. It’s a surreal truth. As you walk along the main street of an evening you see people with nothing but what they wear and carry lining the streets. Sit outside a restaurant eating a meal and a homeless soul will be sleeping on a public bench just a few feet away from you. One man lays an assortment of Vietnam memorabilia, colorful childrens toys, beads and other oddments on a bench and has an old ghetto blaster playing Crosby, Stills and Nash every night. He sits in an archway about fifteen feet away. There’s a rough piece of cardboard beside the ghetto blaster, asking you to ‘give peace a chance, man!’ but there’s no cup for coins. There’s a guy who rides a bike laden with all his possessions, wearing sunglasses, an old tan cap and jacket but no boots. They, rather oddly, are stuck on two broom handles that are angled like bull’s horns near the handlebars. I passed him on my way to a restaurant tonight and a few moments later, realised he was behind me on the bike, unable to swerve around me because he was so heavily laden. I stepped to one side and said ‘Sorry!’ for obstructing him. He seemed startled and said ‘Thanks.’
Maybe people don’t usually apologise to him?
They don’t only come out at night, of course but that is when you see them in greater numbers.
I passed a man in a wheelchair today, barefoot, with toenails so long they were disgusting. Twice I walked past the same bench where a woman sat counting what looked to be about seven dollars, again and again. I couldn’t determine whether she was surprised she had so much or was about to cry because she had so little. Of course, it was the latter.
We all walk past them and, of course, we have homeless in England, too. What is different here is that they are on every main street and there are so many of them. What struck me as truly odd is that here they seem so integrated into everyday life that they become invisible, part of the background of the place. They are commonplace, they are in numbers.
The truth is, when the woman showed me the man trying to sleep, clearly thinking I would see it as an interesting photographic opportunity, she was wrong. I told her that I don’t photograph people. This is not true. I simply could not take away that mans privacy. He would not have been the only person to have lost something in that transaction.
There is not even an argument to be made for photographing the homeless here for the purposes of exposing some hidden and shocking situation, either. We are not talking about something unknown and unseen.
In Santa Barbara, everyone sees the ghosts.
Take a look at more of my work at www.billblack.co.uk