For me, this is a very sad story. We sent out a tweet about it on March 5th linking to an article in The Independent. This is how that piece starts out:

The photograph shows a starkly handsome Chinese man walking with a model’s measured gait, and wearing a rag-tag but well co-ordinated overcoat on top of a leather jacket. His eyes peer into the middle distance, in what one fan described as “a deep and penetrating way”, and he strides confidently forward.

But this is no catwalk model. This is a homeless man in the city of Ningbo. And now a band of web followers are calling him the coolest man in China.

I’m sorry, but if you’re homeless, that’s not cool. In addition to “Brother Sharp”, he’s been called the “Beggar Prince” and the “Handsome Vagabond”.

I’m just not onboard with either the public or the fashion industry, which makes billions of dollars a year, treating homeless people the same as they would as if it’s pic from StreetPeeper.

Rarely is homelessness a choice. Most of the time, someone is homeless because the bottom fell out of their life and their support system is gone. Brother Sharp is a handsome homeless man with a sense of style. However, the act of watching him from afar and assessing his looks and clothing while not being concerned with his well-being really wonders how insensitive and uncaring we are as a species. It’s superficiality at its worst.

I will admit that it can be done. Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist, handled it well when he did it.  Here is his shot from last year, titled Not Giving Up NYC. Here is that post, in full.

I don’t usually shoot homeless people. I don’t find it romantic or appealing like a lot of street photographers, and if you asked homeless people they are probably not to happy about their situation either. That’s why I was surprised to be so drawn to taking a picture of this gentleman.

I was being interviewed for an article in British Vogue; and while we walked down Bowery back in April I barely stopped walking when I took the shot. Fiona Golfar, the writer, asked why I took the photo. At that moment I couldn’t really explain – but I just had a feeling about the power and grace of how he was sitting there. It wasn’t until later that night when I was working on the image that I realized why I had noticed this man.

Usually people in this man’s position have given up hope. Maybe this gentleman has too, I don’t know, but he hasn’t given up his sense of self or his sense of expressing something about himself to the world. In my quick shot I had noticed his pale blue boots, what I hadn’t noticed at first were the matching blue socks, blue trimmed gloves, and blue framed glasses. This shot isn’t about fashion – but about someone who, while down on his luck, hasn’t lost his need to communicate and express himself through style.

Looking at him dressed like this makes me feel that in some way he hasn’t given in or given up.

If the comments flowing out of China had this quality, an appreciation of his style laced with the reality of Brother Sharp’s situation, I’d be more onboard. Schuman expressly says it’s not about fashion but about this man’s spirit and how that’s reflected in what he’s chosen to wear. In contrast, the clamor over Brother Sharp strikes me as creepy and detached.

What do you think? Am I being too sensitive?

Advertisements