Muckraking duo’s legacy endures in photo show of ’80s-era homeless

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With eyes so big they dwarf his gaunt face, the child stands beside an open refrigerator, its contents looking more like garbage than food. Dead flies appear to float in the sludge coagulated on the bottom shelf.

Captured in black-and-white, the haunting image and others like it provided the centerpiece for a 1967 congressional hearing on poverty that resulted in an overhaul of the federal food stamp program. They were later published in a book titled “Still Hungry in America,” rereleased by UGA Press earlier this year.

Attending the hearing was William Hedgepeth, a staff writer for the national magazine Look, who was so impressed by Al Clayton’s photographs, he convinced his editor to send the writer and photographer to the Deep South to do a story on the squalid living conditions there. Within days, they were en route to the Mississippi Delta. The result was a heartbreaking, five-page story titled “The Hungry World of Teresa Pilgrim,” about a 6-year-old girl and her family subsisting on rice and coffee. Hedgepeth was promptly promoted to senior editor, and the two men became lifelong friends until Clayton’s death in 2014.

Both Atlantans — Hedgepeth a native, Clayton a transplant from Etowah, Tenn. — they shared a lot in common, not the least of which was a conflicted love of their Southern homeland and a fierce opposition to human injustice. Together they began to chronicle the country’s tumultuous growing pains during a time of great social upheaval. Their creative collaboration would span more than 30 years and take them to dark places, from Klan rallies in backwoods Georgia to tar-paper shacks in Mississippi to the battlefields of the Nigerian Civil War in Biafra.

Many of their collaborations were published in Look, but not all of them reached fruition. One that has languished in the archives is Bum Raps, a project inspired by the growing number of homeless people in the 1980s. The title could be construed as insensitive today, but it reflects the irreverent sensibilities of the era and contains a double meaning, suggesting the homeless are people who got a raw deal in life.

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Originally intended as a book, it features a series of black-and-white, three-quarter portraits of homeless individuals living in Atlanta in the 1980s. In composition, the images are evocative of Richard Avedon’s American West portraits, but Clayton’s subjects are imbued with immense dignity that hints at what might have been, had their lives not taken unfortunate turns.

For the project, “we’d take one or two (homeless people) over to the studio and Al would shoot them, and I would have them write something about themselves,” said Hedgepeth, a towering figure with unruly white hair and signature eye patch, the result of a car accident in his early 20s.

Hedgepeth had grown interested in the plight of the homeless a few years earlier while living in Los Angeles, where he’d noticed their growing numbers. “I realized they were businessmen and lawyers and from all walks of life, and something had tripped them up to put them in this circumstance,” he said, speaking in his Blue Ridge home.

The project was eventually abandoned, though.

“It was just so overwhelmingly depressing,” Hedgepeth said. “We didn’t get any real encouragement from people because it was such a downer, so we never published it.”

But the project has found new life in an exhibition of Clayton’s work called “Still Hungry in America … Not if We Can Help It” at Blue Mark Studios for an Oct. 6 fundraiser benefiting the Atlanta Community Food Bank and Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, a shelter for homeless men. The event is part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP), a series of exhibits, lectures and related events occurring throughout the metro area during the month of October. In attendance will be Hedgepeth, who will speak about the project, and Clayton’s daughter, Jennie Clayton, who’s made it her mission to keep her father’s legacy alive by bringing attention to his body of work. Clayton’s photography is also included in another ACP exhibit, “Music to My Eyes,” a group show featuring images of musicians at Lumiere, which will have the “Still Hungry in America” show available for viewing after the Blue Mark Studios event.

Perhaps the most arresting photograph among the series is “Joe C.,” a portrait of Joe Coppage, a regular at Clifton Sanctuary Ministries, founded in 1979 by Clifton Presbyterian Church. No longer a church, the sanctuary still houses up to 30 homeless men a night.

“Joe was a special person. His legacy lives on at Clifton,” said Leslie Prince, chair of the ministry’s board of directors. Although he never stayed overnight in the sanctuary, preferring to sleep on the church grounds or neighbors’ porches, she said, he often came inside to eat and shower.

“He was a sweet and gentle man,” Prince said. “If you asked if you could do anything for him, he would always say, ‘Just pray for me.’”

Coppage was killed in 1989, the victim of a mugging in downtown Atlanta.

When Hedgepeth asked Coppage to write something about himself for the project, he printed a plaintive request: “Will you please pray for me. (sic) I do need employment in the future. Labor … prayer and understanding.” Beneath it he drew a picture of the Clifton Sanctuary.

Thanks to the power of photography and the efforts of two journalists devoted to bringing attention to the ills of the world 30 years ago, Coppage’s plea has found an audience and still resonates.

By Suzanne Van Atten
Published Oct. 2, 2018, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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