Interview with Tina Case, Volunteer Photographer with Housing 1000

Housing 1000 is pleased to introduce our new volunteer photographer, Tina Case (of Tina Case Photography).  Tina has been a professional photographer since 2008 and has devoted her time and energy in various volunteer activities.  Now she’s combining her two passions by volunteering her photographic expertise at Housing 1000.

Tina Case, Housing 1000 Volunteer Photographer

As a photographer, Tina works with light.   And now she’s using her skills to shed light on a cause that is often full of misconceptions.

“We have to enlighten the general public,” says Tina, “about how becoming homeless is not a choice, and how it happens to the best of people.”

Read her interview below!


Q: How did you first get involved with Housing 1000?

Tina: Volunteering to serve others means a lot to me. I currently serve as a volunteer at two other organizations, the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network and The PMD Foundation.  My oldest brother passed away in 2011 from pancreatic cancer.  He was a doctor and devoted his career toward helping others, so now I volunteer my time as a way to always remember him.

Before I’d even heard of Housing 1000, I had already been thinking about doing a photographic series on homeless people. After participating in a photography contest, I read about Housing 1000 in Santa Clara County Supervisor Mike Wasserman’s newsletter.  It seemed that I was seeing homeless men and women wherever I went, and I wanted to take action to help.  So I contacted one of Mike’s assistants to find out about volunteering.  It was serendipitous because at the same time, Housing 1000 was looking for a photographer!

Q: What kind of bond does photography create between you, the artist, and the subject?

Tina: I definitely feel a bond whenever I take someone’s photograph. But with homeless men and women I feel a particularly strong bond because their stories are so compelling.  At the end of each photo session it is automatic that we feel the need to hug each other.  In that short span of time we have learned so much about them and they have poured their souls out telling us about their story.  You can’t help but grow close to them.

Days after the interview is over, I find myself still thinking about them. I asked Jennifer Loving if we could do a follow-up story in six months with many of these clients. It’d be an interesting retrospective for Housing 1000, but also I just want to see how they’re doing!

Q: What are some challenges you’ve faced in photographing the homeless?

Tina: The homeless people we are working with are fragile emotionally and physically.  Everyone wants to do our best to protect them and assure them that our intentions are to help them get back on their feet and provide a roof over their heads.  Their emotional state makes them vulnerable so confidentiality is very important.  We do not want to exploit their situation but we do want to share their stories so that others can better understand their struggles and get involved.

My first experience photographing a newly housed person was challenging because the client changed his mind at the last minute—after I had already arrived at the interview!  He told us he no longer wanted to be photographed.  I told him I completely understood but that I would stick around during the interview, just in case.

After about 30 minutes he sensed that I wasn’t there to take advantage of him. He changed his mind and told me to go ahead and take photos, that he felt okay about it after all.  In whatever subtle way I could, I tried to reassure him that I was sincere and only wanted to capture his story to help others.  I tried to make sure he could feel my sincerity.  It worked and we got some wonderful shots now featured on Housing ONE.


Housing 1000 Client Storyboard for Leonard


On a photographic level, the challenge is not to use a flash or strobe when taking photos.   I avoid using one because I feel a flash is intrusive and has a ‘paparazzi’ effect that I want to avoid.  It is a good challenge for me as a photographer to take their photo with existing natural light.

Q: What are some pitfalls in publicity for homeless causes? How have you navigated those?   

Tina: I think there is a general misconception that all homeless people are the same wherever you go.  Some of those generalities and misconceptions are that homeless people are all drug addicts, alcoholics, and have mental issues.

But I have learned quickly that every situation is unique.  One person I met became homeless after the sudden death of her husband.  She went into a deep depression and wasn’t able to find work.  We have to enlighten the general public how becoming homeless is not a choice, and how it happens to the best of people.

Q: In looking at the faces of homeless individuals, what do you notice about them?

Tina: On any given day, the faces of the homeless are really no different than anyone else’s. However, there is one thing I notice in all of the Housing 1000 clients I have taken a photo of so far.  There is an incredible smile of gratefulness in all of them—every single one.  Although all of these people have been through extreme times, each one of them feels so grateful for all they’ve been given and all the help they have received.  I think that is one of the astonishing things I have learned.  That even in their deepest despair they haven’t lost touch with hope.  They all thank God and every human being who has touched their lives.  They are truly and completely thankful.

Q: What is the goal of a portrait, for you?

Tina: For me, the goal of every portrait is to capture the truth and the emotion from each person.  I have to take a number of photos before I capture the one I love.  I’ve also been composing storyboards, to capture a series of photos that tell their story.

I’m listening intently when they tell their story about being homeless and then that first moment when they walk into their apartment. When I photograph someone, I’m looking for that expression that words cannot fully express, that one image that says it all.

Louis, Housing 1000 Client

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About K.A. Erickson

I worked with Housing 1000 (http://www.housing1000sv.org/) from August 2011 until July of 2012 as an Americorps VISTA member. I am the ghost of Katherine past! I wrote a couple interviews to post automatically even after I left--from beyond the grave, as it were. ;) My current blog talks about fiction writing, world travel and other adventures: http://feistynotes.wordpress.com/
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