In His Own Words: LA's Homeless Photographer Records Life On The Streets With Self Portraits
In mid-March, we published a profile of Bumdog Torres. A few weeks ago, he reached out and pitched us a photo essay. We said yes. The result — 6 Feet Back From Life: A Homeless Man's Photo Essay On Life During Coronavirus — and the response to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive. So we decided to keep it going. Bumdog will be a regular contributor to LAist. This photo essay, #findthebumdog, is the first in a three-part series.
Coming soon: "Alley Dogs: Part 1" and "Alley Dogs and Other Portraits."
I think it was sometime in 2009 or 2010 that a friend of mine who was a photographer sent me a link to a Chicago TV story about a newly discovered photographer named Vivian Maier. Like many people, I was blown away as much by her story as her images. What was so inspiring about her photography was that it didn't seem much different than the photos you see in old family albums. The images were ordinary but with a beautification that comes with a conscious effort.
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I never considered myself a photographer. Even though I have a good understanding of composition, it's film composition. Not the moments of still photographs but photographs in movement. I might capture some moments, but it's the movement, not the moments, that keep me interested. Otherwise, I don't have the patience.
I've never had a real photographic camera. I've had video cameras but nothing dedicated to photography. By 2014, every smartphone came with a very good camera. I'd never had a smartphone but I began to creatively visualize an iPhone — and not just any iPhone. I wanted the iPhone 4s, the last one designed under Steve Jobs.
In October of 2014, I had been deported out of Thailand back to Los Angeles (long story) and found myself at old haunts in the Fairfax District. I was seeing friends I hadn't seen in almost 10 years. One of them was "Slayer," a homeless graffiti artist, tagger and dumpster diver.
A few days after I returned, he showed me an iPhone 4s he had found in the trash. The carrier was Japanese so you couldn't use it as a phone, but everything else worked, including the internet. I asked him how much he wanted for it. He didn't want to sell it. He said he was in love with it because of the music it could play, which was what he was into.
However, I also knew he was into meth, which meant he was GONNA sell it. It was just a matter of when, where and who to. For the next few days, I shadowed him, sometimes checking in on him two or three times a day, letting him know I was still interested. He told me he wouldn't sell it for less than $150. I knew that wasn't true. When he started jonesing, it was gonna be up for grabs.
Sure enough, after a few days, he started itching and he mentioned that a friend of his had scored some really good meth and was willing to give him a deal. I told him I would give him $50 for the iPhone. He was grudging at first, but joyful thoughts of a future high overpowered all other considerations and he sold what he had professed so much love for, as I've seen many times before.
I kinda felt bad because he was right. His friend did have some really good dope. I know this because Slayer spent the next three to four days without sleep, walking in circles through the alleys, screaming arguments to himself. He definitely got his money's worth...and so did I.
Various flowers shot on an iPhone.
The iPhone 4s, although it also shot video, was the best dedicated still camera I'd ever had. And I now had the patience that comes from having plenty of time on your hands. I began taking photos of flowers and interesting things I would come across in alleys, alleys that I always stuck to.
Items in an alley in the Fairfax District.
Then one day, I found a couple of mirrors next to a trash can. Remembering Vivian Maier's famous self portraits, I took the opportunity to shoot my first self-portrait, as opposed to a selfie where you are staring straight into the camera. It was the first of many photos I called #findthebumdog.
A couple of self-portraits.
Most of the mirrors I shot in were thrown away and broken. The symbolism of using them to shoot self-portraits didn't escape me. It also gave me some discipline because the fragmented reflections took effort and concentration to get right.
The world, seen through mirrors.
All of the photos in this essay were shot on the iPhone 4s or iPhone 6s.
Left: "HUNGRY GOD BLESS U."
Middle: "A Bumdog Collage Nail to a Tree."
Right: "Bumdog in a Basket of Deplorables."
A colored installation of a mirror I came across on Santa Monica Blvd. All the panels are movable. I was there for a few minutes, maneuvering them around until I got the most out of it. When you look at the mirrors below, you can see pieces of my shopping cart.
Left: "Self Portrait in Car Driveway Mirror." Right: "Double Portrait in Scooter Mirrors."
"Find the Bumdog with a Sleeping Anastasia" - When I take mirror shots with people in them, they are usually women. Because almost all women, even when they are homeless, keep mirrors with them.
Left: "Woman in Front of Rite Aid" - Not only did I have to focus on the shot, I had to make sure she didn't wake up and start screaming at the sight of me hovering above her.
Middle: "Self Portrait with Michelle."
Right: "At the mouth of a Meth Tent."
Dorthea Jean in her camp, with pocket mirror in my hand.
Anuch, Scotty and another dude, taking a siesta in front of the old Fairfax Theater.
Left: Leia walked by me outside of Coffee Bean with a mirror in her pullcart. Middle: Kristen in her camp #findthebumdog. Right: Brooke and her boyfriend Steve, sitting in front of Coffee Bean. Brooke had her back to me because she was doing her makeup at the time.
On Beverly Blvd. there's a cafe called Insomnia. It used to be open 24 hours. Eventually, they only stayed open until 2 a.m. and by the time I started going there, it was only open until midnight. It has been here for about 30 years. In the bathroom, graffiti was actually encouraged, including on the mirror. I heard that Banksy himself had scrawled something into the mirror, which was possible because he had done a few works a few blocks away. I found out it had been sold and remodeled, when I was walking behind the alley and saw all the debris piled up. Including the mirror. I took some photos then decided to put it on my shopping cart and use it to take some more photos elsewhere. I figured I'd have it for a couple of days. Instead, I had it on my cart for another year. I called it the #insomniamirrorseries.
The mirror in its original natural habitat.
Left: The mirror where I found it, discarded with the rest of the trash.
Middle: The corner of Wilshire and Detroit.
Right: Wilshire and Fairfax in front of the 99 Cent Store.
It was best when I was able to find interesting pieces of street art to put next to it. Here's the mirror on the side of the Gemini Gallery.
Clockwise: "Find the Bumdog with Frank Sinatra," "Find the Bumdog surrounded by Happy Faces," "Find the Bumdog with the Dali Lama," "Find the Bumdog with the Cookie Monster."
"Bumdogs on Bumdog" - From a "Dog Hotel" on Highland just below Santa Monica Blvd.
"Panhandlers in the Fairfax District" - It can be difficult to shoot photos of homeless people as many are suspicious of being photographed, even if I know them. Panhandlers on the other are another story. $5 says it all.
"Panhandlers on Hollywood Blvd." - There was something wrong with my iPhone lens that day which is why all the photos are blurred.
Left: Soren (on the left) and Selah (on the right) wearing Bumdog t-shirts. Their father Mike is beside me in the photo.
Right: Neighborhood twins Betty and Adair wearing Bumdog t-shirts.
Not only do these two sets of twins live in the same neighborhood, they actually live two doors down from each other.
Three Swedish art students I met on Melrose.
People from all over the world would come to take their photo in front of these wings. I actually knew the artist, Colette Miller, back in downtown L.A. before she started making them. I had taken a few photos in front of them myself.
One day, while I was watching people take shots in front of it, I got the idea to photograph someone in front of the angel wings while holding the mirror. The first one was a German tourist. I decided to make a series of these shots, and went to the wings every time I had a chance.
German tourist in front of angel wings.
It wasn't easy. As I stood there next to my shopping cart, I looked like I was begging for change and people would avoid me. I would stand there for hours before anyone would agree to hold the mirror. A lot of times, after being there all day, I would lose the light without finding a willing subject. There was a certain time of day when the light would hit just right across a person's face.
Passersby in front of angel wings - Once, when it was just the right time, there was nobody in line to take a photo in front of the wings, I told this brother who was just walking by that I needed help and asked if he could please hold the mirror while I photographed him. He agreed. One of my best shots.
People in front of angel wings.
"The Bumdog Signal" - Here's another shot on the same day I found the mirror. In fact, this was shot in the same alley on the same block. I put the mirror down to shoot something, looked up and saw my silhouette on the wall.
"Bumdog at the Witching Hour" - I took this shot around sunset aka "magic hour."
One day, I waited at the wings all day and couldn't get anyone to hold the mirror for me. As I was losing the light, I began to notice my shadow falling across the mural. I waited a little longer until it was in the right place and shot this.
If you like the photographs you see here, you can buy prints of them directly from Bumdog for $10 each. You can also buy DVDs of his two movies for $25 each as well as the custom made T-shirts you see in several of his photographs for $75 each. (All the money goes directly to him.) His Paypal, Venmo and CASH accounts are all under firstname.lastname@example.org, where you can also contact him.
Photo Editor: Chava Sanchez