The Great UnknownSep 23, 2015 04:25PM ● By Tom McCauley
Sam Herron’s life would make an interesting movie. The synopsis almost pitches itself: a millionaire-turned-homeless-man finds himself living on the streets of Omaha and seeking redemption in the unlikeliest of places—through the lens of a pawnshop camera. Will he find it?
“That is the great unknown,” Herron says. “Yet to be determined.”
Since 2012, the Omaha-based photographer’s haunting-yet-tender work has been steadily cultivating an international audience and the admiration of his colleagues. Now he’s about to publish his first book: Street Life Fragments: Stories and Photographs from Homeless America. Slated for a 2016 publication by Loyola University-Maryland’s Apprentice House Press, the book combines photography and memoir into an unflinching examination of what it’s like to be down-and-out in a thriving city.
The project evolved from a dark period in Herron’s life. Having lost the considerable fortune he’d made as a self-employed daytrader, he moved here from the Greater Chicago area to get his life back on track.
At first, the move was a success: he quit partying, got a job in a factory, fell in love. It was a dramatic about-face for a man who had spent his youth playing bass in a Los Angeles hard rock band that recorded two albums while signed to MCA/Universal.
(Even after he could afford to eat at restaurants where most of us could never score a resevation, he still rode with motorcycle gangs in his spare time.) But he welcomed the change of pace.
Then a work-related injury cost him his job. His relationship failed. He was asked to move out. With no savings or support network, he started sleeping in his car. He shaved in restroom sinks, carefully applying the façade of a man who sleeps in a bed at night, so he would be ready for that elusive job interview. To keep the panic attacks at bay, he began to drink heavily. Often going days without eating, he entered a mental state he calls “borderline seizureland.” He wrote about these terrifying episodes for the blog he started to document his homelessness. Eventually, despite never having considered himself a photographer, he took out his cheap digital camera—one of the last items that hadn’t been sold—and started taking pictures of people he found interesting: rail-riding old men, teenage vagabonds, etc.
Thus began the project that would lead to the publication of his first book, which is written in the streetwise style of Henry Rollins and Charles Bukowski.
Herron’s work can be seen at Lincoln’s LUX Center for the Arts in the “About Human” group exhibit, which runs September 4 through October 30. You can view the photos and read excerpts from his forthcoming book at the Street Life Fragments Facebook page.
Count among his fans the influential documentary photographer Janette Beckman, whose photographs helped immortalize the burgeoning punk rock and hip-hop scenes in England and New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s. During her residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts last year, she took an interest in Sam’s work.
“[He] takes beautiful, gritty portraits of people on the streets of Omaha,” Beckman says. “His powerful portraits of faces tell unheard stories about life on the streets. He is the real deal.”
Photographer Atiim Jones, whose ongoing Face of Omaha project has portrayed thousands of visitors to the Old Market, also attests to the power of Herron’s portraits. “I’ve been following his work for a while now,” Jones says. “It’s intense.”
Herron appreciates the kind words, but he might be too focused on his work to take them to heart.
“From a humility standpoint, I can’t allow myself to even begin to think of myself as some great photographer,” he says. “I want to be as egoless as possible. That said, I do have people say it frequently, which is astounding to me.”
Still, his living situation is tenuous. He often forgoes meals just to save gas money to make it to the coffee shop where he edits his photographs. And although he was recently promoted to assistant director of the Siena/Francis House Miracles Treatment Program—an inpatient addiction recovery program—Herron remains technically homeless, albeit with a bed to sleep in.
Now that his career as a photographer is picking up, the disconnect between his budding success and reality is especially striking. He has a book coming out, but he also has to spend his days breaking up fights. Thanks to the wisdom he’s gained from his experiences, he’s been able to maintain a Hemingwayian grace under fire. Chalk it up to the redemptive process of his photography, which he says has deepened his understanding not only of the human condition, but of each individual as well. As he works to document the lives of the marginalized, he says, “I literally can feel myself becoming a different photographer, a different person.”
Tom McCauley, the writer of this story, has helped Sam Herron with the writing and editing of Street Life Fragments.