Traveling around Baltimore's major thoroughfares inevitably brings you face to face with impossible-to-ignore evidence of one of the city's longstanding problems: people standing in the median at major traffic lights holding signs bearing some variation of the plea homeless and hungry. City Paper contributing photographer Michael Northrup certainly noticed them.
"This idea first came about from going out Martin Luther King to Russell Street all the time," Northrup says. "I passed people begging at the red lights. And then I started looking at them as iconographic. I started looking at these signs they were holding up.
"I think what interested me was their blatant exposure," he says of the men and women who use small squares of cardboard, or even just a plain Styrofoam cup, to make a very public appeal of need. To him, "they just screamed, hey, somebody take a picture."
Northrup proposed the idea of taking photographs for City Paper of some of the panhandlers he encountered. Northrup is an artist, not a journalist, but in either case he didn't know what to expect.
"Before meeting them, I thought these guys would be flat and very un-verbal," he says. "Man, they just let loose sometimes. The first guy, he was really getting into detail about his life. He said he sleeps in abandoned buildings, and when you sleep in abandoned buildings you sometimes hear a rat going across the floor--little teeny taps. Well, he would hear herds. It'd be, like, herds of rats that would wake him up. One guy I approached, I had this pitch about City Paper and blah blah blah, and he just turned and said, 'No, this is too depressing.' A couple of others seemed comfortable with what they were in for."
The resulting photographs are indeed, in many ways, iconographic. Each sign is more or less the same, and even the plain Styrofoam cup works wordlessly because a person dressed in often ragged clothes stands at an intersection holding it. But these are also portraits of individuals, each of whom faces similar challenges yet has followed his or her own path to these intersections. (More of their stories emerge in video interviews Northrup captured, viewable at citypaper.com/go/homelessandhungry.) (Lee Gardner)