Tender Souls is a multimedia exploration of the inhabitants and workers of San Francisco’s, California, most misunderstood and often ignored neighborhood, the Tenderloin.
The Tenderloin borders some of San Francisco’s most central and well-heeled neighborhoods, filled with tech startups and giants such as Twitter, Uber, Zendesk, Spotify. However the name is synonymous with rampant homelessness, drugs, violence and mental illness.
Then, earlier this year, I began working with a non-profit in San Francisco called City Hope. Paul Trudeau, who runs it, brought me on as an art director for an event they were working on.
That work resulted a video documentary, released two months ago, about three of the area’s residents.
How did Tender Souls first come about?
I began my career building and working in different tech startups in the Bay Area and New York as well as B Corps like Change.org. I was always interested in being at the intersection of social change, though my roles were more focused on product or business development.
Then, about three years back I suffered a pretty rough bout of depression. To help myself get through that, I turned to photography. That was the thing that moved me to pick up a camera for the first time. I guess I was looking for some form of artistic expression to get out of my head a bit.
When I was a kid….all I did was draw but it wasn’t until age 29 that I really started to cultivate that side of me. I picked up a camera and it was an instant love affair.
Street photography was my introduction to the craft.
What were you doing at the time?
Five or six months into Tender Souls, I decided to focus more fully on the documentary project as well as broader storytelling and photography work too. I was running a company when I started Tender Souls and that company was failing. So I told my wife: “I want to be a photographer who tells stories.” Immediately I knew, I wanted to help people tell their stories.
How did you get the project off the ground?
It’s been a bootstrapped, complete labor of love. Whenever [Felix and I] found the time we’d dedicate our days to Tender Souls.
You’ve become a pretty skilled photographer!
I was lucky and had a friend, Felix (co-creator of Tender Souls) who became my photography mentor. I ended up walking the streets, especially around the Tenderloin where I’d been volunteering at various non-profit boards like Glide SF.
My goal was to use photography as a lens to make people think about social justice.
Did the photography change your relationship with the area?
I knew the area to some extent but it wasn’t until I had a camera in my hand that I got to know the neighborhood intimately. I got to see and engage with the fabric of society.
I started to fall in love with the Tenderloin and its diverse community.
Did your relationship with the Tenderloin and poverty in San Francisco change as a result of your documentary work there?
TheTenderloin is an area that’s been polarized for a long time. Social inequity is really visible.
In San Francisco, you see these two disparate worlds colliding. You see tech professionals alongside dealers, disabled and homeless people. These people don’t connect.
Through my work for Tender Souls, I’ve gone from being a passive bystander, working on the “third floor” with charity boards to actually physically getting involved with life on the ground
I want to create a common connection though my work that hopefully also creates understanding for community members and their problems.
Is the Tenderloin and the rampant poverty in San Francisco a “tech problem?”
No. Any challenges we face, they’re all our problems. Blaming tech is just a way to avoid acknowledging the problem.
I do think the tech industry in general is being demonized now for many social problems just like the banking industry was before.
However the tech industry in the Bay Area does create these different market dynamics that make it hard for native Bay Area people to live. On the other hand, the industry also brings value.
That tech gold rush was founded on the principle of adding value to the world. Right now the problem is that value is only benefiting the middle or upper middle class.
I’d like to see people address that question. I want people to be more aware of their surroundings. We all inhabit this area. We should all feel a natural responsibility towards each other.
If you work or live in the Tenderloin, there’s no question you’re going to be deeply impacted.
However I’m not trying to focus on the clichés but the whole social fabric. It requires a deeper level of understanding that only comes by engaging with the problem.
We all carry that responsibility.
What’s the best way to help people in the Tenderloin?
Don’t try to solve everything. Invest in one person. Become their friend and help them.
Start by acknowledging you’re part of a communal fabric that’s more than just online.
We need to recognize our neighbors and the humanity of the people different from us. Acknowledgement is where it starts. I’d also encourage people to:
Engage locally. I think people in tech want everything to be scalable but not everything can be addressed that way.
Going to a local non-profit may seem very specialized or small-scale, but that contribution is just as valuable.
Has being profiled in your photos, audio interviews or the film benefited your interviewees?
We see changes in the people we cover just by acknowledging them. Corey in the film, he was homeless for 20 years.
It’s our hope that more compassionate policy comes out of engaging with these stories.
Just recognizing someone’s very existence makes a difference to them.
Can that also happen on a national scale do you think?
Absolutely. Any time we can invest in the lives of others who seem dramatically different on the surface, there’s hope.
How did you hone in on the stories for your documentary?
In areas where there’s real poverty…people actually need each other. It forges a true sense of community. Relationships get built very quickly.
When we started documenting the community, people would introduce us to other folks. The stories grew from there.
How do you gauge how much of each person’s story to tell?
I take an unadulterated approach to people’s stories.
For example, the audio interviews are raw — it’s people’s voices unfiltered. Both the audio and visual formats fit together to present a more complete profile of each of our subjects. They can express their truth better than we can.
You want to take the viewer through as much of the story as makes sense. We can only show what’s there, not go beyond that. You can’t necessarily resolve every story. Hopefully though you can inspire people to look for a hopeful resolution.
How did you pick the subjects for the film?
I wanted to showcase the diversity of the Tenderloin.
Few people realize there are 6,000 children living in that area! It’s the most densely populated neighborhood for children in the city.
So I picked:
A story of redemption (Curtis)
A family story about a mom who dreams for a better life for her daughter (Tiffany)
A story that showcases the true depth of a person rather than the clichéd aspect of homelessness/addiction (Corey)
Has becoming a new father changed your perception of the people you’ve portrayed and their struggles?
Yes! My daughter’s been lucky enough to have been born into an incredibly loving family, even though we don’t have extensive means.
Now I can acknowledge that’s not the case for everyone. I feel more responsibility to show that and create a more equitable world for my daughter’s generation.
The video documentary was initially filmed for a City Hope event. How did it end up being associated with Tender Souls?
When we started working on the project, Ididn’t know it was going to end up being connected to Tender Souls. I just wanted to do a social issues documentary about people explaining their lives in the Tenderloin.
It wasn’t until the documentary was in post-production that I realized it was also very intimately connected to the profiles of residents and workers we were doing for Tender Souls.
Everyone involved felt it was a natural good fit to slot the documentary into the wider project.
Were there any problems showcasing the City Hope video alongside Tender Souls?
In the world of social impact storytelling, people just want good work put out there. You very seldom run into people motivated by selfish means.
For example Felix, co-creator for Tender Souls, wasn’t part of the filmmaking process but he was OK with that. Similarly others got involved with the video documentary but not the photography angle. Everybody contributed their skills to showcase the stories the best way they knew how.
Everyone has a common interest in getting these stories heard. It doesn’t really matter which organization ultimately releases them.
Aside from watching the video online, do you intend to distribute it more widely?
Since the subject-matter is so localized, I’m not sure the film has the legs to reach millions of people. However it does have the potential to cut to the heart of everyone that watches it.
Making the video easily accessible online and hosting pop-up events across the city helps support that aim.
I’m planning a new documentary: “Externalities,” which focuses on those left behind by our modern economic system. The aim is to create a real life, visceral experience beyond the theories of people like Stiglitz, Robert Reich, and Thomas Piketty (who are all inspirations), documenting the unintended economic consequences of larger policies or economic strategies on sections of the population.
Think gentrification in Oakland, California, climate change on fishermen’s livelihoods or manufacturing workers in the MidWest. This project is taking on a more national dimension.
I’m interested in humanizing esoteric questions like what happens when you’re born into a culture of poverty? This project will embrace film but also more traditional media too.
What does this project mean to you in the context of having overcome your own struggles?
You’re going to have your own internal battles regardless of who you are.
Forging a level of self-awareness by interacting with people who’ve dealt with their own demons was a way to come to terms with my own.
How can people learn more about your work?
Check out the stories onlineor attend one of the screenings being held at tech companies in San Francisco.
[This post was originally published in The Xoogler in December 2017]
Documenting humanity in San Francisco’s Tenderloin