On any given night, there are approximately 200,000 homeless Veterans wandering our city streets or encamped in shelters. There are another 1.5 million at risk for homelessness. Once upon a time, they were warrior-heroes: young men and women who risked everything to protect us and to preserve our heritage of freedom.
Jerry Tovo, a photographer and former drill sergeant, speaks with passion and a gruff matter-of-factness about the plight of homeless veterans and his mission to photograph as many of them as he can. It’s a project born of different facets in his career. Between his time training young men for combat during the Vietnam war and the beginning of this new crusade, he worked for Kodak during the development of digital photography. The focus then was on color for the consumer market; black and white was generally overlooked. It was only much later that he discovered the potential for digital’s reproduction of black and white tones for “gritty, character driven portraits.”
The resulting book, I Was a Soldier, is the first part of a multi-tiered campaign to bring the stories homeless veterans to life. The book works as a mission statement, sketching out the various parts of the project. Beautifully designed by Greg, Katie, and Tracie of Jager Creative, it couples the photos he’s already taken with statistics, statements, and a model for a museum show that’s becoming a reality. Tovo says it will have its premiere in Saint Louis this summer. He ultimately hopes to take it to Washington D.C., where he can photograph veterans at the Vietnam Memorial.
Tovo has already started his campaign in DC, taking his case straight to the politicians, presenting the facts and the books to members of Congress. Says Tovo, with incredible conviction, “once they hear ‘homeless veterans,’ how can they say no?”
Tovo is still photographing and interviewing homeless veterans, contacting them through a combination of Internet-age and old-fashioned social networking. He works with homeless shelters and goes into encampments – like St. Louis’s so-called Bum Park. It’s been a learning experience; he quickly learned he couldn’t just go in to an encampment and set up a portable studio. He had to work more subtly, more one-on-one.
Perhaps most impressive of all is that Tovo is doing all of this with the help of just a few individuals, he recently brought on a volunteer fundraiser. He says travel is the most expensive part of the project, as his goal is document as many individuals in as many cities in the United States as he can.
The 67-year-old Tovo hopes this project will be his legacy and that he and his team will really get something accomplished – listen to him for five minutes and you’ll be convinced he can. Tovo would like to focus more on the photography, and less on the administrative tasks. So naturally he’s looking for volunteers and contributors. You can get involved at theymayhavebeenheroes.com and you can buy a copy of his book, and see more images from it, in the Blurb Bookstore.