Putnam: Photographer shows human side of homelessness
By: Caurie Putnam
Sometimes beauty comes from great loss, such is the case with Michele Ashlee, of Brockport.
In 2004, her brother died in Lewiston, Maine. He was 42, a veteran and homeless.
“My dad was a police officer, my mom was an EMT and my brother was homeless,” said Ashlee, who grew up in Lyndonville. “People don’t expect to hear that.”
There’s a lot people don’t expect about the homeless and Ashlee is using her own experience and her passion – documentary photography – to change that.
Her solo photographic show, “Invisible Lives,” is on display for the public at Java Junction in Brockport through the end of July. The photos premiered at the South Wedge Mission in Rochester in March, along with works by photographers Julie Oldfield and Lucas Marchal in a show called Portraits of Resiliency.
Ashlee shot “Invisible Lives” from January to May 2015 mostly at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality Soup Kitchen in Rochester and Sanctuary Village — a tent encampment beneath Rochester’s Douglass-Anthony Bridge that was moved to a warehouse on Canal Street. It was closed in April 2015.
Every Monday in January and February, she went to Sanctuary Village with coffee, warm clothes and backpacks to hand out, and she brought her camera.
“Seventy-five percent of the people were willing to talk to me,” Ashlee said. “They really just wanted human contact and were always really gentle and sweet.”
Sometimes Ashlee would share her own story.
“They were always so compassionate and sorry for my loss,” said Ashlee, who is also a hairdresser. “I’ve worked in the beauty industry my whole life, but I’ve seen more beauty and kindness in these people — they show their hearts.”
The images Ashlee captured and personal narratives that accompany many of them are stirring.
“There is so much depth to Michele,” said Arleen Thaler, a documentary photographer from Rochester and founder of Monocle Photo Co-op. “Her own personal story just adds to her photos.”
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