THE CROWD SHIFTED. The wind, all around us, howled vengefully and plucked at our clothes, lifting up scarves and causing people to pull the thick lips of their beanies lower over their foreheads. The figures shuffling off the bus at Third and Main spared a bemused glance at us clustered behind the Union Gospel Mission men’s shelter before hurrying on their way.
Against the exterior of the shelter, a ghostly image flickered to life; a human face transformed into a sprawling landscape, each wrinkle and crease a canyon winnowed out by floods of sorrow or joy and then left barren by drought. A stirring score by Ellensburg-born singer-songwriter Star Anna joined the wind, rising up around us in a flurry as the portrait, accompanied by the caption “Broken,” was replaced by a glossy headshot radiating inner warmth. “Restored.”
The around-five-minute video included a number of these “before” and “after” shots, along with footage of the Union Gospel Mission’s search and rescue van gliding through dilapidated streets on its way to catalyze these transformations. This was Angels: Lost and Found, an exhibition of sorts that would migrate throughout the evening and those following, first on Main and Second, the next day hopping between Union and Western, Second and Virginia.
If it seems less like an art exhibition than an ad campaign—a projected billboard–that’s probably because it was put together by a copywriter and Best Buy’s creative director. Paul Asao, aforementioned creative director, has been donating his time to this project for nearly a year. He says the idea was born seven years ago, when New York–based photographer Lee Jeffries agreed to let the Mission use some of his work free of charge.
Jeffries is known for his arresting portraits of people experiencing homelessness in urban centers around the world, and is behind the poignant black-and-white “before” shots that practically trembled with life against the brick backdrop of the shelter. Commercial photographers Francis Catania and Shawn Michienzi captured the unblemished, glimmering “after” shots, an idea that Asao and concept writer Dan Mackaman conceived as a way to inspire hope and demonstrate that “homelessness is not a permanent condition,” as Mission president Scott Chin puts it.
Presenting portraits of the unhoused in this format, cosmically large and projected onto the sides of buildings, furthered the impression of features as terrain, of these faces as part of the urban biome rising up all around us. And the mobility of the exhibition also made a compelling statement. These people were part of the city, but not inanimate features like the sides of buildings onto which they were transcribed; they were fleeting yet omnipresent. Alive.
The idea, says Mackaman, was to create something so large that it demands to be witnessed, is impossible to ignore, cannot be met with swiftly averted eyes and a quickened gait. Asao and Mackaman are both keenly aware of the pitfalls associated with portraying marginalized groups, and Asao says this is partly what inspired the “before” and “after” concept. “Their goal,” he says, referring to the after shots, “is to capture the life that happens once you have hope.”
Chin’s introduction to the exhibition hits a similar note. “Transformation really does happen…. Real change does happen…. Even though you may not see it, many miracles are happening every day.” He says it with a nearly tearful sincerity, one that you can feel deep in your gut like the beating of a drum. And then he calls for prayer.
The sincerity gives way to an uncomfortable reality: The Union Gospel Mission has a pending petition before the U.S. Supreme Court, defending their unconcealed hiring discrimination against a bisexual attorney. The Mission is one of the largest homelessness nonprofits in the city and does tireless and transformative work. They are also an unapologetically anti-LGBTQ organization.
Which raises the questions: If we had functional municipal infrastructure for dealing with the housing crisis, would private religious organizations have to be the loudest voices advocating for people experiencing homelessness? And would an introduction to an art exhibition intended to breathe dignity and life into the unhoused necessitate a call to prayer? The answers, held side by side, create their own sort of “before” and “after” image.