In the face of a growing homeless crisis in Sonoma County, this weekend’s second annual Festival of Belonging, a project from nonprofit groups Homeless Action and Justicewise, invites the public to see the situation through new eyes, with a photography exhibit and discussion taking place at the Glaser Center in Santa Rosa.
The festival began last year as a means of supporting the homeless encampment located behind the Dollar Tree shopping area in Santa Rosa’s Roseland neighborhood. The city eventually dissolved that camp.
“It was the last long–standing homeless camp, so in a sense we thought of it like they were being evicted from their longtime home,” says festival–producer Gillian Haley. “We wanted to support them just like we would any neighbor.”
That inaugural event last year was a small gathering where people shared stories of homelessness and community. This year, the festival aims to help the community relate to the homeless neighbors through the medium of photography.
On Friday, Sept. 13, the Festival of Belonging opens with an art reception for the new exhibit, “Faces,” in which Santa Rosa’s Salvador “Pocho” Sanchez-Strawbridge captures nearly 40 up-close-and-personal photographic portraits of local, unsheltered people and shares their stories. The festival continues on Saturday, Sept. 14, with a program dedicated to “Inherent Worth” and featuring a talk by Robert Sadler, who himself shoots stunning black-and-white formal portraits of homeless men.
“This year, we are presenting photos of people and stories of their lives—their hopes and challenges—to the general public as a way to build a bridge of understanding,” Haley says.
“The portraits are wonderful,” says Kathleen Finnegan, artistic director of the “Faces” exhibit. “Our photographer Pocho has the gift. People just drop their defenses in front of his camera and the photos are natural, spontaneous looks at people as they really are. It’s quite a bit different from the public perception.”
The photos are shot in extreme close-up, with the subjects maintaining eye contact, to offer a portrait of “dignity in the face of adversity,” as Finnegan puts it. The exhibit will stay up until Oct. 30, with viewing hours Monday through Wednesday beginning Sept. 17.
Following Friday’s reception for “Faces,” the festival continues on Saturday afternoon with the discussion featuring Monterey County-based Robert Sadler. “He works with the homeless down there, and had the idea to do these portraits showing their essential dignity and worth,” Haley says. “They’re museum-quality portraits and he shoots in black-and-white, so we thought the contrast in styles was interesting.”
Sadler will talk about his own experience and compassion for the homeless, with a reception to follow. “The idea for the Festival of Belonging is to awaken empathy and a sense of working together,” Haley says.