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. This photo essay, #findthebumdog, is the first in a series.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All of the photos in this essay were shot on the iPhone 4s or iPhone 6s.
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.
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.
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.
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