“I’m Only One Person, But By God, I’ve Got a Camera”

by Mark Yarm

"Alone," a black and white photo of an older, hard-bitten, unshaven man seated in a doorway on the street; behind him, a glass doorway reflects parked cars. to his left, a "No Trespassing sign" in the window
Image: John Simpson

Last month, Paul Schofield, associate professor of philosophy at Bates College, went viral on Twitter after he posted a series of powerful pictures of unhoused people in Olympia, Washington taken by local photographer John Simpson. Now that the Supreme Court seems likely to side with an Oregon city’s law banning homeless people from sleeping outdoors, these black and white images strike viewers with a particular urgency.

Simpson, who has zero social media presence, had shared his work with Schofield in response to the latter’s writing on homelessness.

“I was just kind of astounded by what he sent me,” Schofield told me recently.

“He really manages to capture the humanity of the people that he’s photographing.“They’re not just objects of pity, and they’re not generic symbols of a societal problem. You really get a sense of their individuality, that they are people with inner lives.” Simpson’s photos didn’t feel voyeuristic, Schofield said, or romanticize his subjects’ situations.

Simpson is a 71-year-old retired community college history teacher from Lacey, Washington, who contributes to the hyperlocal online news outlet JOLTS. He told me that he began shooting Olympia’s unhoused with a digital camera almost a year and a half ago.

“I’m angry that a country as wealthy as this country is has a crisis on its hands,” he said. “I’m only one person, but by God, I’ve got a camera. And I do believe that good black and white photography can move the needle just a little bit into getting those who are in positions of authority to do something about this.”

Simpson stressed that he always asks his subjects’ permission before photographing them. He hopes to collaborate with Schofield in order to get his photos further out into the wider world. In the meantime, I asked Simpson to share the stories behind five of his portraits, and he was happy to oblige.

“His Only Friend” (February 2023)

“His Only Friend” was one of the first images I made in starting this project. There’s a road here in Olympia called Ensign Road. On one side of the road there were various campers, trailers, one bus, and tents arrayed, going back in a line for 250 yards. And 250 yards in, I meet Mark. So I struck up a conversation. And he wasn’t real communicative, but he said, “I’ve been here a while. I’ve been homeless for a couple of years. And this dog is my only friend.” That’s when I asked to make that image.

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