Listen to Austin 360 Radio

Photo project humanizes city's homeless population

Arianna Auber
aauber@statesman.com

Daniel Read, armed with his camera, was determined to tell a meaningful story for the final project in his photography class at the University of Texas.

But he didn't know what it would be about until he happened across a homeless man, Michael Watts, in downtown Austin one day in late 2009.

"You should take my picture," Watts said, and so Read did.

The set of black-and-white photographs currently lining a wall at the Dell Jewish Community Center's Gallery at the J is the product of Watts' suggestion and Read's decision.

This display, called "Documenting Dignity," is a series of photographs chronicling Watts in a three-month span, as well as other homeless people across town.

The humanity Read brought to Watts and the others caught the attention of Susan Sternberg, the chair of the visual arts committee at the Gallery at the J, after her photographer husband and artist brother-in-law met Read at Houndstooth, a coffee shop on North Lamar Boulevard.

"The homeless can become invisible, but Daniel's exhibit calls attention to them and humanizes them," Sternberg said.

She thought Read's photographs were perfect for the gallery, where they have been on display since May 8.

After Read struck up a friendship with Watts, he began to visit him three days a week for three months at a nursing facility — where Watts, as Read came to find out, was dying from liver cancer.

Sometimes Watts wasn't coherent. But Read always made sure to spend time with him — up to three hours each visit.

Then, Read took a two-week break from visiting Watts because the trips for him were emotionally draining. When he returned, he did not expect to find the room empty, Watts and all of his belongings gone.

"No one told me that Michael had died, even though I had spent so much time with him," Read said.

The final photograph in the Watts' series shows a grave marker with Watts' name on it — a picture symbolizing closure for Read and his project. Watts is buried at Travis County International Cemetery.

For more information about Daniel Read, visit www.danielaustinread.com.