On any given night, there are more than 15,000 homeless youths in New York. As many as 40% of these kids identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Sylvia Rivera, a transgendered woman, knew these facts too well. An advocate for LGBT rights at the Metropolitan Community Church of New York's food pantry up until her death from cancer, it was her dying wish to start a shelter for LGBT youth.
'Sylvia's Place' was the result, started by Reverend Pat Bumgardner, who had made- and kept- a promise to Sylvia on her deathbed. The first client- Ron Malice- arrived on April 3rd of 2003; two weeks later, Lucky Michaels was hired, and the seeds for what would eventually become Shelter began to take root.
Shelter is the fruit of years of work on the part of Michaels- both as an employee and photographer. He was studying photography at Parsons School of Design when he began work at Sylvia's Place' (where he still works today), and the shelter- as well as its colorful inhabitants- provided the perfect subject for him to shoot. The result is this book, an often-haunting collection of photographs that document the daily life of the youths who call 'Sylvia's Place' home, if only for a few nights.
Although the characters and their stories in Shelter are by no means complete, they are nevertheless moving portraits of young people whose difficult lives can be seen in their eyes, their posture, and in the space that surrounds them. Like the inhabitants, the photos are casual, young, sometimes gritty, but possess a knowledge and sentiment well beyond their age. Michael's has clearly honed in on the emotion, the fear, and the vulnerability that runs throughout the space- and through everyone living here.
Shelter is not nearly as deep or dark as I may be making it out to be; there are also plenty of smiling faces, joy, and hope. Several clients stick out, and bits of their stories shine through in quotes, stories, and of course photos.
Every young person had something to say, and each story became part of Sylvia's growing history. Part of that history has been captured in Shelter, a moving, well-produced book.
Trolley, 192 pages, $50 (About $35 at Amazon.com)
Jason Salzenstein is a writer and editor; design, image, and marketing consultant; and professional shopper. His work has appeared in numerous national and international publications and he has clients around the world. For more information :: www.JasonSalzenstein.com