I wasn’t nervous until I got there. Perhaps it was the imposing bearded figure standing guard at the gate, or the group of men gathered by an entrance, but as I circled the dilapidated building looking for a place to park, my mind started generating excuses to leave. I’d already tried twice to arrange getting photographs for the Hunger and Hope assignment for National Geographic’s Your Shot website. My calls to a soup kitchen in Fairfax, VA had gone unanswered, and I’d shown up on the wrong day to capture hot meals being distributed in McPherson square in Washington, D.C. Now we were in Ohio visiting relatives for Thanksgiving, and this was going to be my last chance.
Despite my inner-self’s best efforts to convince me there were no parking places and I should just give up, I pulled into a spot not far from the stone and brick building housing the Warren Family Mission. The small northeast Ohio nonprofit was hosting a Thanksgiving meal from noon to four, and I’d made up my mind to capture it.
I took a deep breath and followed a middle-aged couple in. As we passed the bearded gate guard, he smiled and welcomed us. He didn’t, as I’d imagined, stop me to ask why I was there, tell me I should have called first, or tell me it was rude of me to capitalize on these poor people’s hard times. Maybe I didn’t stick out as much as I thought. Or maybe they truly did welcome everyone. Maybe my fear of being judged came from the fact that I was judging them.
Near the entrance I passed three pairs of men and heard snippets of three conversations:
“God is with you, don’t forget”
“I hear you, I understand, God will get you through this.”
“Lord, we praise you for all you’ve done and we ask for your help and guidance…”
At the entrance, a volunteer was directing people to the end of the line that had snaked around a series of hallways. I told her I was there to take photographs and without question she took me to meet a manager, who smiled and pointed me in the right direction. No anger, no judgment, no rejection.
The meal was being hosted in a large room with a stage on one end a several windows along one wall. As soon as I walked in, two young volunteers – a brother and sister – handing out plates and utensils greeted me, “Happy Thanksgiving!” Their mother was happy to have me take their photo, and so it began. I moved around the room, talking to people, finding out about what brought them to the Mission that day, and learning more about how the operation worked.
On the stage sat a group of about ten volunteers on break, each wearing a white plastic apron and a name tag. Cindy, a woman sitting near the front of the stage, said she was there with about 20 others from her church in neighboring Niles, Ohio. This was her first time volunteering, but that it was something she’d been wanting to do her whole life.
“What I really want to be doing is that,” she said, pointing to the food line. “I really want to be serving.”
“What do they have you doing?” I asked.
“Anything they ask,” she answered, grinning ear to ear, despite not having her chosen task.
She wasn’t the only first-time volunteer I met. Another woman, Shelley, told me that she and her son had signed up to come by themselves, but after posting about it on Facebook, were joined by 20 other friends and family members.
Some people ignored me, while others posed and joked about being famous.
Only one woman asked me not to take her photo. In fact, she very forcefully ordered, “Don’t you take our picture!” But then as luck would have it, the line slowed down, and she and I were stuck next to each other. We started talking and ended up laughing and talking like old friends.
I stayed for two hours and left having struck up conversations with more strangers than ever. Regardless of whether any of my photos get selected for the Your Shot assignment, the experience was a success. Rather than feeling like an out of place intruder, I felt like I’d played a role in the whole operation. My job was to tell the story of hunger and hope. Below are my photos.