It was in 2003 that Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago offered its first showing of “After Supper: Visions of My Life on the Streets.”
The photography event was organized like most gallery shows, with the printed and framed works available for sale to guests who came to sip wine, nibble cheese and consider making a purchase. It featured 51 images taken by 17 artists, all of whom stood to make money if someone bought their pictures.
The thing that made it different from the typical gallery show?
The artists were guests at Catholic Charities weekly Tuesday Night Suppers for people who are in need; many were homeless, and they made their pictures using disposable 24-frame cameras.
The photos showed all kinds of Chicago scenes, including some that most people would never see, including a tent tucked into a green area on the bank of the Chicago River. It was the home of the artist who took the picture.
Fast forward to this year, when Catholic Charities presented its 10th annual “After Supper Visions” show June 22-23 at the St. Vincent Center, 721 N. LaSalle, with plans to remount the show in at least two other venues.
Volunteer curator Jody O’Connor said that one of the biggest differences she has seen is the subject matter of the images. Among the 200 pictures from 59 artists that were mounted this year, there are several that feature the play of light on the water of the Chicago River at various times of day and in various seasons, a composition of red and purple bicycles against green foliage (by Geoff B.) and apples reflected in the polished wood surface on which they sit (by Beate H.).
“It’s the most incredible change,” said O’Connor, one of the volunteers who has worked on the project all 10 years. “We have these classes where we encouraged them to show their lives, because their lives need to be seen by all people. But it evolved into ‘let’s look around at what’s around us, what’s beautiful and thoughtprovoking.’ It’s a wonderful progression.”
Over the years, a total of 188 artists have sold $87,739 worth of photos. Some of the artists who have returned year after year have used the proceeds to purchase cameras, so this year not all the images were taken on disposable point-and-shoot cameras. Some artists have earned enough to put security deposits on apartments or register for community college classes.
But the benefits are more than monetary, O’Connor said. The reason she keeps coming back is the friendships she has developed with the photographers, and the conversations she has had with them about the photography. At those times, she said, they are simply artists talking about their art.
At the gallery shows, the photographers experience the same thing: people talking to them seriously about their work, treating them as equals. That’s not something that people who are homeless or near-homeless experience every day.
“It’s just a totally different kind of interaction,” O’Connor said.
“It’s special to be a part of this beautiful event,” said Beate H., who took the photo of the apples. “There is never the perfect photograph taken, but when a person stops and looks at my photographs and doesn’t only walk by, that’s a perfect moment and a perfect photograph, because I touched his or her mind.”
Many of the photographers return year after year; as a reward for their experience, they are allowed to display four photos instead of three.
The event has grown in terms of the number of shows each year — which gives the public more opportunities to interact with the artists — and organizers this year are trying to expand into online sales to individuals and corporations.