Tender Souls is the brainchild of two photo friends, Brenton Gieser and Felix Uribe Jr., both of whom are weekly contributors to our own Everyday Bay Area. As they've put it on their own site, this project aims to uncover "the humanity and complexities of the Tenderloin," a notorious San Francisco neighborhood around which the tech sector has been creeping for a couple of years. Beneath the surface of The Tenderloin's struggles with homelessness, mental health issues, violence and the like, "rests a soul unlike any other community in San Francisco," writes Brenton and Felix. Hence, this project - and an apt title - was born. The "aim," writes T.S., is to "make the unseen, seen, and the unheard, heard."
CatchLight spoke with the duo to find out more about the project.
CatchLight: How has working in a team contributed to the (growth, focus, tone) of the project?
Brenton: I think our partnership dynamic is unique on a few different levels. Felix is my first “photography teacher”. Much of my technical abilities, style, approach, communication style with subjects and love for the art is directly influenced by him. My growth as an artist in constantly being challenged by Felix merely by watching him produce with such love and compassion. Without knowing it, he pushes me to be a kinder person and therefore a better photographer. Coming from a background in business, I think I bring a certain level of big picture thinking to our work on Tender Souls. Rather than disparate stories captured organically, I wanted to showcase the rich communal tapestry of the Tenderloin. I think Felix saw this as an opportunity to further push himself beyond his comfort zone as a photographer, to becoming a documentary photographer.
As for style and tone, I think style derives from your approach to your subject matter even more so than your aesthetic preferences. Both Felix and I have a deep love for human beings. We have both lived through our own bouts with depression, and family troubles which gives us the emotional availability to listen to people surviving on the streets. We assume the role of story vessels rather than storytellers, and allow the tone of each story to be dictated by the subject. From a style perspective, I think I take a more photojournalistic approach to my work, trying to unearth context from all ends of the story, and Felix is more of brilliant portrait photographer blended with thoughtful street stylings.
Felix: I've been a photographer for 11 years. I really didn't know too many photographers the first 9 years, but these last 2 years I've started hanging with photographers, and the number one benefit is knowing you are part of a larger group of people, that you're not alone. My main teammate though has been my pal Brenton. He’s the older brother I never had. Photography can feel like an individual sport at times so teaming up with Brenton has helped me see the bigger picture (pun intended) as far as the network of photographers that are also pursuing incredible stories.
CatchLight: Why the Tenderloin? What personally does it illicit in you and your photography practice?
Brenton: I have been on the Legacy Committee at GLIDE for the past three years. GLIDE is one of the largest social service organizations in the city providing our marginalized community in the Tenderloin with free food, access to shelter, health services, recovery counseling, and so much more. However, it wasn’t until I started my journey as photographer in December of 2015 that I started getting an intimate glimpse into what life on the street is like. Personally, I was going through a tough, and chronic fight with depression during that period of my life. Photography got me to slow down and see the details of life, and the Tenderloin helped me find other friends who were toiling in their own mental and spiritual darkness. Rather than spiraling downwards, it had the opposite affect on me - it gave me power, perspective, and the love I needed to go through my own healing process. When I am in the Tenderloin now, it feels like home, it is home.
Felix: [The TL] It's where I first realized that I love San Francisco. The Tenderloin is where I first realized that there is more to this community than what you see when you walk around, what you see or smell on the streets is just a small footnote to the beauty of each individual. Photographing in the Tenderloin forces you to be honest with yourself and with the community. People just want to know who you are, not who you work for or who you know - just who you are. The community wants genuine relationships. My goal/focus is to be present and try and engage with everyone but if I just get to know one person then that's a win in my book.
CatchLight: What are your goals for the project - this can include ways you’d like to collaborate with the community (methods) or visibility (for the community and the images), etc.
Brenton: It’s kind of weird for me to say, but I don’t think we have many specific goals with this project. Goals have dictated trajectory of my life for sometime, and am trying not to let that happen anymore. We do have a vision however, and the vision is to showcase a comprehensive representation of the neighborhood as it exists today. The Tenderloin seems to represent the final safe place for the disenfranchised in San Francisco. However, it too is being squeezed by the market and thus developers.
We hope to syndicate our stories with a local publication that has the right reach and audience. We also hope to exhibit our work in a way to allows our subjects to be the stars, and move deeper into their stories with an in-person audience. I also think we’d like to publish a book of our work someday.
CatchLight: What does street photography mean to you in 2017?
Brenton: One of the reasons I have a deep love for street photography is that every street photographer’s work is governed by a deeply person motive that often dictates their approach, style and purpose. For me, street photography in 2017 can be split into many different sub-categories from the Magnum-era torch carrier, to the film shooter with an eye for the bizarre, to the low-light cityscape photographer, etc. For me, I like to connect to both the pulse of the city and the people that form the cadence of that pulse when I hit the streets to shoot. So I combine wider scenes and candid shots that have the capacity to tell a story within a single image, with street portrait and those I meet while walking through the Tenderloin and 6th Street.
Felix: Street photography means connecting and engaging, going deeper with the people I meet. I never want to exploit; I just want to make more friends.
CatchLight: What is exciting to you about Everyday Bay Area? What does ‘community’ really mean to you?
Brenton: The diversity of photographers that make up EDBA is pretty remarkable. From the personal make-up of each photographer, to their photographic style, to their preferred subject-matter, we are all very different from each other. This diversity lends itself to a balanced and accurate representation of what the greater Bay Area is comprised of. To be part of a group like this is not only a massive honor as we will be able to help reshape perceptions of the Bay over time, but also to be part of a group of photographers and storytellers who are all committed to telling real, authentic stories - whatever they may be.
Felix: It's really cool to see all the different perspectives of the city from so many talented artists. I'm truly honored to be working with such a talented group of photographers in the Bay Area.