In June of this year (2016) I made my first trip to Europe, visiting the cities of London and Paris. While in Paris, it was only a matter of time before I would stop by the Notre Dame Cathedral. On a morning stroll around the Seine River, the Cathedral stayed in my sight and I made my way to it’s west facade, or its traditional main entrance:
I was in awe. The power of the French Gothic design and stone work was overwhelming in good ways. There were sculptures and engravings beyond anything I’d ever seen. Visually satisfying. I took many photographs and knew that it would be hard to stop.
After a few moments, it seeped into me that I should finally go inside. I looked around the open plaza and noticed that there was a large crowd in the area. Naturally, many visitors were enjoying and photographing the Cathedral. In particular, I noticed that there was a very long line to get inside. I grimaced slightly, and floated around in procrastination, but who was I kidding? “It’s going to be worth the wait, you have to get in line.”
Before I committed to the wait and got in order, something caught my eye in the plaza. It was a woman, dressed in a head scarf, holding a cross, on her knees, on the stone walk with a small cup in front of her. She was begging for change:
I think it’s a combination of my Christian faith, and just an overall sense of humanity, but nothing pulls at me more than homelessness and poverty. I’ve not studied global economics or am really looking for specific answers right now, but, every time I encounter a person in need or that is homeless, my first thought is, “how does this happen?”
How does someone end up in a situation like this?
Before I go further into a passionate rant I will say that I did as much research as I could to learn about "the beggars outside of the Notre Dame Cathedral" and did not find any solid information. A few blog posts or online chat threads question the authenticity of the “gypsy beggars” at Notre Dame and in Paris in general. While walking the streets for a few days, I had numerous encounters with people who were in need, or claimed to be in need, giving me a small, first-hand insight.
First, there were these women at Notre Dame. I cannot commit to whether or not I believe their gesture of need was authentic or not. My heart leans towards saying that it was a true solicitation for alms.
Secondly, there was a group scattered along the banks of the Seine River. They were women who would approach you with a clipboard containing a piece of paper and a pen. They claimed to be collecting signatures for a petition in support of some kind of human rights legislation. It felt a bit odd, so I did not stop to talk with them. When researching later, I would learn that these women would have pedestrians sign the petition and then say that a minimum donation of 10 euro was ”required" to accompany the signature to aid their cause. Seemingly, a scam.
Lastly, one evening I came across a man laying outside of a building just off of the Place de la Concorde. He had a few belongings and was making his home for the evening in a small corner of the building's exterior. I dropped whatever change and euro pieces I had in my pocket into his cup, wished him well and said a small prayer for him. Unmistakably a man in need.
Here at the Notre Dame, again, I could not tell if these women were authentic, but the symbolism and imagery of the moment was too great to ignore.
“How does someone, anyone end up in a situation like this?” I think about that person’s life and their story. I wonder about that moment: the conception of homelessness. There is always a moment. There was one day, one night, one moment where that person had a place to be, or a place to stay, and then…they did not. They were on their own on a street.
I admit that I should take the time to learn about this issue, if it calls to me so much. But currently, I wonder and, I ask questions internally. I ask them rhetorically, with a broad view, wondering how this becomes a part of our human fabric. I think about the emotion or concept of humanity. How are there those with such loss and in such need in a world where others have much to spare? How do people "get lost?" I ask it as a Christian. I ask God, with frustration, slightly towards Him, but more towards us as people in regards to caring for one another, “how do any of Your children end up in a situation like this?”
Before getting in line, I could feel images and a story unfolding. A great adage to art or storytelling is to “show and not tell,” but I feel it’s right to share what I was feeling before composing these images and to voice what I saw in them afterward. I don't repeat images while blogging, but here is the first image again.
Here was a woman, on her knees, low to the ground hoping for some donations from those in line waiting to enter the Notre Dame Cathedral. She is literally passed by dozens of people. The symbolism killed me. She has “fallen” and “become lower” and is in between and at the mercy of those “standing upright”:
I moved around a bit and tried to widen my view and catch more of the interaction that was happening around her. In this image below, I was struck by the little girl walking with her mother and the proximity that their hands have to the begging woman in the composition. There was the innocence of that girl’s youth in contrast to the reality of poverty, something I hope that young girl never experiences. In addition, look to the upper left of the frame. There is a young woman, smiling and enjoying a day at Notre Dame with her friends or family, and yards away a woman begs on her knees:
My intention is not to preach. “Shame on these people for not…” No. I was simply trying to document and tell the truth. I wanted to show the state of the moment and the truths of our humanity. Does this sort of thing not happen everywhere? Whether the beggar in question is authentic or not, do we not look away, not notice, look elsewhere and turn a blind eye to those on the street in need?
This place and this moment in particular made the disparity of the condition visible. Paris. Notre Dame. The joys of recreation and freedom of travel were in stark contrast to a moment of need. People look at their cell phones and cameras, and interact with their friends and family and consciously or subconsciously miss the woman on the ground:
I would move around looking for other vantage points and after a few moments, the woman would change her position as well. I came to the following image. It left a great impression and would inspire a driving thought for my own psyche and the theme/title for this blog post.
Again, tourists were passing the woman and I intentionally waited and composed her as a figure between the people:
I stood and looked to the LCD of my Nikon and reviewed the image. The first thing that struck me were the faces of the two people directly to the left of the woman. Looking upward, towards the Cathedral. Then I scanned it more and noticed the woman on the far right of the frame. She was looking to her cell phone and was holding a small tote bag. Printed on the bag were the words, “It could happen to you.”
How fragile is your life? Is anything a guarantee? Some of us, maybe most of us, are fortunate to have family and friends that would never allow us to end up in a circumstance where we would be forced to beg for money on the street. But who knows? Sickness, an accident, a fallout with a loved one, a natural disaster, acts of war or terror, the economy, businesses and corporations go under…At least once in life, we will all encounter a moment that’s larger than us. We will face something that’s outside of our control and that rocks the foundation of the “good life” we have built for ourselves. How fragile is your life? How many moments or unfortunate events are you away from becoming her? From being in that position?
It was in this moment that I realized and became incredibly thankful for my life and being able to stay in orbit. First, I am a believer and always rely on faith. Though there have been trying moments where I was not sure how God was going to work it out, He always has, and I always have a roof over my head. But outside of that, I became thankful for my family who has kept me, when I was in difficult situations, and for friends that I know would give me a place to stay, if, heaven forbid, things became that dire.
After reviewing the image, I walked over to the woman and placed a few euro in her cup. She nodded and gestured “thank you.” I decided it was time to embrace waiting in line to enter the Cathedral, but I could not seem to shake the experience. As I waited in the line and looked ahead, I noticed that there was another woman in the area doing the same as the first: kneeling and hoping for the charity of a tourist. I stepped outside of the line in order to capture her image:
Thankfully, those behind me in line saw what I was doing, and they were gracious enough to let me retake my place in line. As we shuffled forward, I kept watching her. Suddenly, a young girl stepped out from her place in line to drop a few coins in her cup. Almost as quickly, I stepped out of line again to capture an image of the moment: