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Looking into the “Faces of Homelessness”

Dominican University student photographs homeless for senior art project

Looking into the “Faces of Homelessness” Looking into the “Faces of Homelessness” Looking into the “Faces of Homelessness” Looking into the “Faces of Homelessness”

It’s easy to avoid the homeless. Just look away.

But Nicci Cisarik, a senior photography and painting major at , decided to use her camera to “make the homeless visible and hard to ignore,” she said.

The result is her senior thesis project, “Faces of Homelessness.” It is on display at Dominican’s O’Connor Art Gallery through April 9, during the first of the two-part Senior Thesis Exhibitions.

The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m to 6 p.m. An artists’ reception will be held Sunday, April 3 from 4 to 6 p.m. The exhibit and reception are free and open to the public.

Cisarik’s project consists of eight pairs of photographs. Each pair portrays a homeless person Cisarik met, interviewed and photographed at a West Suburban PADS shelter over the past few months.

“My original idea — to just take portraits of the homeless — stemmed from talking with a homeless person on the street. We had a conversation about his hopes and dreams, and I was curious about what other homeless people would say,” said Cisarik.

With the help of her advisor, Cisarik hit on the idea of taking two photos for each person. The first would be a straight portrait. The second, the result of a detailed interview, would be an image that illustrates something key to that person’s life story.

Cisarik intends each pairing to create a “strictly visual portrait,” she said, with no words of explanation needed.

For the man who spent much of his life working for railroads, Cisarik photographed train tracks for the second  image.

When another man emphasized his faith in God, Cisarik photographed a page of scripture he quoted.

“Some images were harder [to come up with] than others. I recorded the conversations and listened for significant things, positive or negative, that inspired the second image,” she said.

To begin, Cisarik approached Sherri Hackett, program service director for West Suburban PADS, with her idea. With a few caveats — clients would have the right to refuse to participate and Cisarik would share her results with PADS — Hackett agreed to allow Cisarik to ask for volunteers, do interviews and take photos at the local shelters.

“One of the issues for people experiencing homelessness is that it is very lonely and isolating. To have someone interested in talking with you, treating you with dignity and photographing you is an important opportunity for human contact,” said Hackett.

“We also educate the community, and that can include one-on-one interaction for a student like Nicci. We want to support that,” added Hackett, who noted that PADS has a longstanding relationship with Dominican University.

Cisarik has an ongoing commitment to social justice work. She has volunteered at Su Casa Catholic Worker (with homeless Latino families) and at the Inspiration Café. She’s involved with Dominican’s Student Leadership and Ministry Program.

She first paired that commitment with her camera in 2009, when she attended a protest against the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga.

“The biggest part of social justice work is educating people about the issues. When I took pictures at the protest I realized I could use my photography for that,” she said.

Cisarik, who plans to enter a graduate school program in higher education student affairs next fall, is still in touch with some of the people she photographed. One, a photographer himself who lost his job and then his home, now has secured some lodging.

He recently graduated from PADS Career Passport employment readiness program (Cisarik attended and took pictures at the graduation ceremony) and is looking for work.

“There are all kinds of stereotypes for the homeless. Some people are just hit by the economy. These are everyday people—you can’t tell who is homeless and who isn’t,” said Cisarik. “I just want people to have a better understanding. I want people to see them.”

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