Over the past several months, local documentary photographers Brenton Gieser and Felix Uribe have been sitting down with Tenderloin residents to hear their personal stories, and gain a better understanding of the people who call the long-stigmatized neighborhood home.
Months later, the people they've met and snippets of the stories they've heard are now on display at tendersoulsproject.com, for all to consume virtually.
The website, launched last week, features a handful of portraits of people who live in the Tenderloin, as well as audio of three individuals who shared their stories. Additional portraits and audio stories will be added to the site monthly.
Gieser and Uribe, both Bay Area natives, came to the Tenderloin separately through community service interests. Uribe, previously a social worker in Hunters Point, began lending a hand through City Impact. Gieser, who previously worked in tech and founded his own social enterprise, found his way to Glide, joining the church's young professionals board.
The photographers said their goal for the Tender Souls project was engaging with community members on an individual basis and bridging the gap between them and the rest of the city—especially Mid-Market.
From Gieser's perspective, Market Street has become a dividing line for two different classes of San Franciscans. One side has found status and wealth, he said, while the other remains on the fringe. However, many people with means do want to connect with their less fortunate neighbors around issues like homelessness and economic injustice. They just don't know where to start.
The website is just a starting point: Gieser said he and Uribe hope to turn the Tender Souls project into a series of real-world events. They're already in conversations with Tenderloin nonprofits and Mid-Market tech companies about hosting interactive exhibitions on both sides of Market, where people could view the portraits and listen to the stories in a gallery-like setting, but also meet some of the subjects in person.
They're also exploring how to host casual meet-ups—sans featured speakers or special guests—that could bring neighbors on both sides of Market together to interact on the same level.
And one day, they might even turn the project into a book.
The key to bringing the Tender Souls project to life, they said, was building trust with Tenderloin residents first. While both men are experienced street photographers, they decided not to walk through the neighborhood and shoot candid photos, instead spending time getting to know each subject before asking to photograph them. The more people they got to know, the more they were introduced to friends and friends of friends.
Gieser says he's still in regular contact with many of the project's subjects, and building connections with them has had a profound impact on his own life. After leaving the social enterprise he founded, he experienced terrible depression, he said. Photography and listening to the stories of Tenderloin residents—many of whom experience mental illness, but can’t or simply don’t hide it—helped him “see the details of life” and “my own darkness and my own light ... It helped me heal in a lot of ways."
While the duo is still working to solidify their first full exhibition, a few of their portraits will be on view at Space 236, along with work from a handful of other local photographers, in the new group show Neighbors. The exhibition, which opens with a party from 6-10pm this Saturday, aims to show pedestrians the natural beauty of the neighborhood and its residents.
Neighbors also happens to be the final exhibition for the pop-up gallery at 236 Leavenworth. Those who can't make the opening party can stop by the gallery from 11am-5pm on weekdays before it's gone for good.
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