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Homelessness in a New Light

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A portrait from Aaron Draper’s ongoing photo series, 'Underexposed.' Photo by Aaron Draper.

It turns out that putting a beautiful light on an ugly issue resonates with millions of people around the world. Academy of Art University M.F.A. photography alumnus and current CSU Chico photography professor Aaron Draper discovered this when he created a beautiful portrait series featuring homeless Americans. His series, Underexposed, has been published more than 200 times in more than 20 languages.

“I’ve lost track,” said Draper, who had his mom keeping track of the numbers until they got too large to count. Draper believes that his photos resonate with so many people because he has a different take on how homeless people are usually presented. “People are used to seeing the homeless in a way that is more truthful, in natural light, in a photojournalistic way.”

Draper feels that his job is to to make things beautiful, whether it be a client, a product or a homeless person and uses an exceptional lighting technique to light his subjects. “So I didn’t discriminate. I didn’t say, ‘Well, you’re homeless.’ I photographed them the same way, as every paying client, by making them look the best they possibly can,” he said. “I want people to see them as I see them, as beautiful people. I just sort of took that and ran with [it].”

“I like the way he gave these street people dignity,” said James Wood, executive director of the School of Photography at the Academy. “It’s not a truth necessarily. It’s not documentary, it’s editorial. And he did a beautiful job of that. He’s not looking down on these people; he’s accepting them for who they are. He’s made them human beings and even a little bit above that.”

Draper developed Underexposed at the Academy for his thesis project and people around the world have responded to his striking photographs. Draper has been invited to exhibit and speak overseas in Romania, Russia and London as well as in the U.S. in Seattle and at several organizations in California where proceeds from his events go to help the homeless community.

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A portrait from Aaron Draper’s ongoing photo series, 'Underexposed.' Photo by Aaron Draper.

The photographer ensures that each subject in his photographs is paid for their time and receives a copy of their own photo. He makes a point of following up with them. He also gives copies of the photos to homeless organizations such as The Jesus Center in Chico and Grass Valley’s Hospitality House. These organizations don’t have the budgets to help with marketing or websites, but are able to use these photos for those purposes. 

“I get the ball rolling, but it’s exponential how they are helping themselves as well as the agencies that help them,” Draper explained. “It’s sort of circular.”

In order to get images seen so you can make a difference, Draper believes hat you have to play the game and be as competitive as the top commercial photographers. He promotes Underexposed on websites and social media platforms. “We have to polish our social issues. We have to make them look awesome,” he said.

On occasion, Draper has been met with criticism for how he lights his homeless subjects. “Mostly, people don’t like homeless people with additional lighting, they mostly photograph them with available light,” he said. “And that goes back to who usually covers social issues.”

His time at the Academy was integral to how he copes with such criticism. “AAU is heavy on concept,” Draper said. “They really pushed the reasons behind your work and the intent. What are you trying to accomplish? And what’s this about? They emphasize how to speak about your work and how to defend it.”

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Behind the scenes of Aaron Draper’s ongoing photo series, 'Underexposed.' Photo by Aaron Draper.

Draper has thanked many of his instructors for asking the really hard questions about what he was doing and why, in his mid-point and thesis reviews. “It really helped because not everybody appreciated my work. And it helped me develop a little thicker skin and prepared me for those kind of responses and that reception,” he said.

One of Draper’s highly influential instructors was Michael Hirst, who teaches the concept course for the M.F.A. program. Hirst explained the course, saying: “We are less concerned about the quality of the execution and more concerned with thought process. How does one conceive of a photograph or project?” 

The concept instructor found Draper’s traditional college education and literature background to be valuable and not common in a technical program. However, the most valuable thing Hirst found was that his student was highly focused on what he loved and was interested in.

“To me, the most important part of photography is communication, and in order to do that, you have to have a commitment to it,” Hirst said. “[Aaron] started a project on the homeless that was really quite exceptional, I thought that if he kept it up, he would be able to break through into a fine art world that is difficult to break into, because he brought the commercial side, which is lighting and technical, together with the social, intellectual and emotional side. He was a great student. He is very special.”

Draper’s immediate goals entail continuing Underexposed. As long as there is homelessness, he will make sure that homeless people are in the public eye. He also has two other projects in the works; one focuses on immigrants and the other focuses on Syrian and Afghan refugees. He plans to to take the summer off to photograph them in Croatia and Hungary. 

“Again, it has to do with people in society that aren’t looked at very fondly, more ostracized and not viewed aesthetically,” Draper said. “I think I can make these people look really beautiful. I think I can change people’s opinions by making them look better.”

 

For more information on Aaron Draper's portrait series, Underexposed, please visit www.aarondraper.com.