Interview with Photographer Tom Stone

With a voice reminiscent of creaking hard wood floors, Tom Stone is a genuine, seemingly gentle guy with a heart that beats sympathetically.  Stone is a San Francisco based photographer, focusing a lot of his time working in the Tenderloin area of S.F. working with the homeless population.  For years he has been capturing the stories of those drifting through the area, listening to their heartaches and sometimes taking them on as his own.  He invests more than his artistic capabilities into his subjects.  He knows them by name and they know his.  Understanding that the ways in which things operate now are not working, Stone uses his photography as a vehicle to have their stories heard, connecting an otherwise unknowing audience with a worldwide problem.  When purchasing his work from his Poverty or Streetkids series, 50% and sometimes 100% of the proceeds is used to directly cloth and feed the people he photographs.  His generosity is both inspiring and respectable.  In this interview, he discusses his connection to those people and how he hopes to help them.

How would you like me to refer to you?  Tom Stone?  Tom?  Mr. Stone?

Tom works.

Tom.  Well, you can call me Maggie.

Hey Maggie.

Thank you so much for doing this interview.

Sure.

Well, would you like to go ahead and get started?

Sure, let's go.

Your upbringing: born in a train care, living with the Source family (a spiritual commune)...It's an incredibly sensational story and not one you hear often.  And I can't help but think that it influences your photography to some degree. 

Clearly, to some extent I'm an outsider.  Clearly to another extent, I've been in situations that specifically correlate with some of the folks that I shoot.  I've lived in a van.  In the [Source] family there were a lot of young drifter type people who were coming into the family.  You know, young people not in a home of some sort; young people away from their families or searching for stuff.  Clearly, that was a big part of the commune and the population of people there.  I think in a lot of ways the subject matter that I focus on, the sensibility and just what I have witnessed has lead me to question and similarly search for varying sorts of answers, understanding commonality in differences and various things in relation to how I have seen them over time.  Because, I have been there [in similar situations to the subjects] and I have also worked in banking.  So it's an interesting perspective that heightens, for me at least, the interest in understanding certain things.

it wasn't me

YOUNG MAN WITH TEDDY BEAR | SAN FRANCISCO| OCTOBER 13, 2007

itwasntme.jpg

He's been working the intersection like a pin ball, or a yo-yo on a string. corner to corner; side to side. propelled or drawn, he rushes here and there, then waits.

I catch him in an alley with a friend and his bear. The friend is hunched behind a car and hovers away as I approach. The bear stays close.

Name's Wayland; from san mateo. been more than a year since I met him first.

He tells me of the places he's been and the places he likes. says he likes colorado best because people get along good there. He went there with his parents when he was about fifteen.

They took his picture with a baseball cap and his baseball glove raised to make a catch. He shows me how. Says he was really close to his parents and he misses them.

They're dead now. his mom died in '97 from stomach cancer and his dad might as well have. his dad started shooting meth, got aids from a transvestite downtown and died soon after.

The transvestite was a friend of wayland's and he's pretty sure she's how his dad got infected. He's not totally sure though.

But he's sure it wasn't him.

"I had myself checked. It wasn't me. I'm just glad i didn't give it to him."

 

You keep talking about people searching for something.  Do you feel your photography helps you search for something; some sort of connection to the past or at least prolonging your relationship to your childhood?

Not at all.  As a mom you will understand that you tell your kid or teach your kid that they can do anything and that they are going to do great things or good things or change something.  Everyone has some sense of the fact that they'd like to change the world or change something.  No one really knows what that means.  To a certain extent, I see things that are just bad or wrong and I just want to understand why they are that way and how they could change.  A lot of what I do is highlighting what I think is messed up and hoping that people will connect with them under the theory that the best way for things to change is for people to think about how to change them or to be at least worried or concerned or interested or connected to the problem.  One person usually doesn't do it.  One person is not usually as effective as it is from a groundswell level.  People who concentrate or people worried about stuff help fix the problem.

In a sense, it's as if you are a liaison between two worlds that would otherwise never converge.  In your experience with people giving you feedback on the images, do you feel like people connect more with the picture itself or the story you tell alongside the picture?

In terms of the story and photograph, it's never really been very clear to me how they should fit together.  And it was surprising to me that they really did fit together as opposed to reside next to each other.  They do have a degree of synergy.  They do sort of add up more together than I expected that they did.  So it was as much of a surprise to me as anyone.  Originally, I really did want the photography to stand and its own, and it does, but I really didn't even want to talk about both of them together.  I really more want to talk about the photography and then present the story as well.  A lot of people get as much from the story as they do the photograph and then appreciate the other more because of wherever they started from.  And I wouldn't have expected it to be able to have that resonance in a photo-story combination.  I really would have figured that would have happened with some sort of video project.  But you couldn't really do something similar in a video project because I think there is more deliberate art in a still.  There's a lot put into that image in terms of deciding it and presenting it.  I feel there is less art and more subject in the video.

You said it yourself, your photography speaks for itself on a large scale and I think more people are interested in what goes on before and after the picture is taken.

I guess you didn't ask the question, but I'll answer it anyway: a lot of what I write, probably 25% or so in terms of the story themselves, tends to really be not necessarily empathic, but basically I try to understand the person or figure someone out a little bit.  I tend to, at a basic level, intuit how all these facts fit together.  I would suggest filling between the lines.

skyler after the rainbow

GIRL ON SIDEWALK | SAN FRANCISCO | AUGUST 2, 2009
skyler.jpg

Her name is Skyler. She's still waiting but hasn't sold a thing. She's a hand for features colorfully animated. Two note pages full for sale, but they don't seem to catch. Her own might be a generous sketch, but she's a bit awkward. She's on a corner off to the side, bundled and hunched with a pile of packs and knapsacks. Almost lost in the mix; but hard to miss.

She's been on the road a short while from Pennsylvania. First was the new mexico rainbow gathering with two friends. Hitching from stop to stop. Then further; why not San Francisco.

Her friends aren't here now, but she says they're somewhere about. They've all been sleeping on the pavement nights. It's not too bad and the cops don't hassle you as long as you stay out of the park.

She's not sure what's next, but it's been two months and she thinks she really should be getting home.


Do you find that you are surprised with people's reactions to your photographs...that people are more sympathetic than maybe you thought they would have been?

No.  I shoot what I shoot and I present it because I have reacted to it.  And I feel: If you react to it, unless you're an alien, presumably other people should react to it as well.  You see something that disturbs you and point it out to someone and they just say "Whatever", that would be an odd situation.  But realistically, most folks do have a certain amount of callousness.  They get used to seeing things.  But the ability to present it in a way that is somewhat different therefore gives them the opportunity to maybe see it in a new way helps to break through that degree to which they see stuff thus don't see it.  I present stuff because I think folks will recognize it.  I guess sometimes I'm surprised at some of the things they don't necessarily connect with.

Such as?  

With some photographs that I have posted over time, you just notice what people connect with and what they connect with less.  Whether it was posted online or in shows, it is just sort of interesting what speaks to people.  But seeing what speaks to people changes a little bit what you present and probably refines your understanding of how to make your point.  I think people that I shoot reflect to a degree what folks are receptive to.  Although, I'll often go outside of that and show something that I'm not sure they'll be receptive to but I think it important.

In previous interviews, you have said that you still have a relationship with some of the people you photograph.  Is the sympathy for the person or the situation as a whole?

I guess that you could start with the photography.  What I shoot is fundamentally a person, right?  Even the black and white, the style of shooting that I like to do, is connecting with the person.  You'll notice even if to some extent in the cropping, which isn't cropping, but in terms of the proximity to the face, it's about more the person than the situation.  I try and have a degree of situation, but if I was most concerned about the situation it would be shot in wide and color.  You could see the entire gory situation starring you in the face.  I try to textualize the person.  But I try to universalize or provide the connection with the person in the context, to some extent, of the situation.  But really, as much as possible, it's about taking that person and bottling it.  So yes, I am interested in the person.  

Beyond that, in terms of my own connection to people, I do try and maintain relationships with folks over time.  I try to interact and keep tabs on folks and what they're doing, talk to them as much as possible, not that that's a relationship.  When I connect with folks a lot of times, the camera more connects with folks than I do.  Some interactions are shorter than others, some are longer.  I am exclusively about what people are doing and what sort of motivations and problems they have, what their interests are.  That's why I do what I do in terms of the story really; for example, you may have seen the origin of the Poverty Project, which is hearing the stories and using the photographs or the camera as a tool for that.

You say that your favorite photograph you have ever taken is the photograph that initially shows up when you visit your website.

I don't know if I said that was my favorite, but it is certainly one of my favorites.

 

beavis

YOUNG HOMELESS MAN BEAVIS, SAN FRANCISCO, 2006

beavis.jpg

Young homeless man beavis shooting up in the tenderloin. He picks his scabs to find a good spot; and tries a few locations before he gets a vein. He has the "love" and "hate" tattos from "night of the hunter" on his fingers. He's showing "love" with his right hand as he sticks the needle in.

Beavis knows everyone on the street. He is tremendously literate and articulate and a really great artist. Beavis is one of the reasons I take pictures of the homeless.

I met him in october of '05 (10/6/05) near union square. He was hurriedly moving along the sidwalk checking for change in the pay phone, sifting through trash bins, etc. He looked over at me and just had an amazing presence in his eyes. I continued walking, and then had to turn back and ask if i could take his picture.

 

What is your favorite then?

I have a number of ones that I like.  I don't know if there is one specifically and I think it changes over time.  I like "Faith and Grace"; sometimes I like it more and sometimes not as much.  "Beavis" is a photograph that you probably aren't going to see a lot of other places; it was a moment that was kind of like world photography.  You're in the midst of something that in kind of gruesome.  I like two of my "Wayland" shots; that's the one with the guy holding the teddy bear.  "Very Bad Things", the one that looks like Norman Bates, is a very cool shot.  I like the one that looks like [Edvard Munch's] "Scream"; it resonates really well with a certain segment of folks and less with others.  That is an interesting one that is binary, not very binary, but certainly one that I gravitate towards.  I really like "On the Road", but that's less for the photograph and perhaps more for the person.  "On the Road" is the one with the guy that has ear gauges who ended up killing himself.

 

on the road

BOY WITH EAR LOBE GUAGES PANHANDLING, SAN FRANCISCO, 2006

ontheroad.jpg

Gabriel from Portland sitting on the sidewalk panhandling. traveling the west coast. when he goes back to Portland, figures he'll get "some sorta mill job"

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Gabriel Joshua Wolrab, May 3, 1985 - October 17, 2006.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I actually think that is the first photograph of yours that I ever saw.

Right.  A lot of people have seen it.  Probably more than "Beavis".  Flickr, for instance, has controls on that image and so a lot of people probably don't see that as much, although they would see it more if it didn't have filters on it. 

I know that you work with other mediums as well while you were in college, working with more hands on, physical work.

I used to draw a lot and I used to paint a lot; while I grew up, I did a fair amount of pencil work.  Kind of in a similar vein, I have always been reflecting things that I saw as opposed to creating things from my head.  It's a different kind of artist that dreams on paper.  The other represents what they see.  I've always represented what I've seen.

 

kids with dolls

YOUNG PERSON PANHANDLING BESIDE TEDDY BEAR, SF, 2/19/07

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She sits in a way ladies aren't supposed to, beside a large teddy bear which doesn't seem to mind. They're layered in a sort of soot set by time. But there's a familiarity.

The people pass in huddled disbelief at what she shows. Though it's not so much, it looks like more. Their eyes and fingers point. There's shock as they go.

She's grasping her knees like she's sitting in a cold shower remembering the night before. Like she's crashing down off the heroin she took too long before. Like she needs another fix.

But first she "just" needs five bucks for that "habit" she has. She's been panhandling.

There's a skin trade everywhere here and she looks the part. With her pink lipstick and blond wig. With her bare coverings. With her indiscretion.

But she has a face that is so familiar.

And when she talks it's not as a lady.

Name's Wayland; from San Mateo. Been on the street since he was sixteen.

He's been living in a nearby low income hotel he pays with SSI benefits.

What for, the SSI? He points to his head.

Says he has plenty of friends on the street, but his family is mostly dead; except for a sister. He visits her sometimes.

And i know now that i've met him before as a boy.

 

very bad things

(HOMELESS MAN, SAN FRANCISCO, 5/24/07)

verybadthings.jpg

"Hi, how are you?" he says excitedly. He thinks he knows me for a moment.

Name's dan; from Billings, Montana. Left when he was 15. Been on the street since then.

Talks to his parents sometimes on the phone. mostly to his mom. But she just died three months ago. Talked to his dad then; and to his sister. She's born again. Has two other sisters too; no one knows where they are.

He was supposed to be flown back for the funeral; but that didn't happen.

Tells me how he came to San Francisco ten years back: "me and this..." He stops and looks at me. "do you hate gays?" he asks.

"No."

"k. me and this gay guy; we broke out of an institution; jumped the fence and hopped a train. came to San Francisco. We were friends for a long time."

"You're not still together?" I ask.

"No. I wish we were though."

A man in his fifties walks by with a big smile disturbing the thought. He's looking at dan repeating like he's bursting: "The naked guy from the hotel! The naked guy from the hotel!"

He doesn't stop walking.

"He took pictures of me. Naked pictures. I didn't like that."

Asked how he gets by, says "I do what I have to do."

"What were you in the institution for?" I ask.

"My parents put me there when I was 9. They lied; said I did things I didn't do."

"It was 'cause of my father. He molested me. He did very bad things to me."

 

Do you feel like photography is a more concise way of representing what you see?

It's different.  As I tried to indicate a little bit, there is an interesting balance between art, reality and opinion that I try to strike.  I couldn't do that with video or with pencil, in terms of my talent level.  I think that balance works really well with photography.

Do you still work with the other mediums?

Not so much.

Do you miss it?

Yeah, to a certain extent.  For instance, folks who play instruments, someone who plays the violin specifically, there are certain things that you do that are soothing and clarifying that really allow you to let off a lot of the built up stuff.  Drawing for me was a bit of that.  My photography isn't necessarily so much of that, especially with what I shoot.  A lot of that builds up.  A little comes out in the writing, but it still affects you.  Having that outlet and a sort of peaceful activity could be helpful.

I'm interested to know how you have fun.  You photograph musicians.  Do you do that for fun or is that more professional?

(Laughs.) That's not fun at all.

No?!  How is that not fun?

That's a lot of work.  Mostly, I just have fun with friends, spending time with folks that I like.  That's the most fun I've been able to manage.

Do you have any other outlets?

Just to the extent that I interact with friends and general social interactions.  There is beautiful nature where I live; there is certainly many ways to let off steam.  I would just say that certain solitary ones could be therapeutic but I don't currently participate in any of those sorts of things.  I think, as I said, those sort of things were you challenge yourself or you're doing music or drawing, these things were you are participating on a lot of levels on your own can be comfortable to a lot of folks.

Special Thanks to Tom Stone for this interview.  To see more of his photography, follow the links below:

Tom Stone Online:

Web Gallery: http://www.tomstonegallery.com/

Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stoneth/

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/tomstonegallery

Twitter: http://twitter.com/phantomstone


Other Articles on Steve's Digicams by the Same Author:


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Maggie OBriant
Maggie O'Briant  Personal Blog Flickr

Maggie O'Briant recently graduated from Florida State University with an English Literature degree.  She is currently a freelance writer and photographer.    She currently lives in Hawaii with her husband and giant baby. 

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