Photographer spotlights homeless youth


Anthony Pira, the photographer featured in the inaugural edition of Scout Cambridge in the story called “Invisible Faces: Photographer Spotlights Homeless Youth in Harvard Square,” has been honored by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education as one of the “29 Who Shine.”

Pira is slotted to receive the award at the State House in May.

“When I started this project, I expected to change people’s lives, but I never expected it would change mine,” says Pira, the photographer behind the photos featured here and here.

Here’s the story from the inaugural edition of Scout Cambridge:



Invisible Faces: Photographer Spotlights Homeless Youth in Harvard Square

By Lucas Parolin

Anthony Pira points his camera at Franklin O’Sullivan and encourages him to smile. He then clicks away as the 20-year-old holds still and lights up, pretending not to notice the other two photographers surrounding him. He’s a natural.

“Have you ever had so many cameras pointed at you at the same time?,” Pira muses while adjusting his camera. O’Sullivan laughs and admits he’s a paparazzi newbie. Pira walks to his model and asks him if he likes the pictures. “Well, of course,” O’Sullivan says with a laugh. “What picture of me doesn’t look good?”

It sounds like a scene from a high-fashion photographer’s studio, but the setting for the shoot is actually Youth on Fire, a center for homeless youth in Harvard Square. O’Sullivan isn’t a model, but a young man living on the streets.

Since opening its doors in 2000, Youth on Fire has helped thousands of 14 to 24-year-olds like O’Sullivan attain basic necessities, including onsite hot meals, showers, laundry and clothing. Open five days a week, the center provides a non-judgmental environment and helps homeless and street-involved youth acquire basic medical and mental-health counseling. They also connect drop-ins with valuable community resources.

While O’Sullivan was posing for pictures, several other teenagers and young adults entered a door to the left of Pira’s makeshift photography studio. In the room next to the studio, they were discussing ways to reduce at-risk behaviors on the streets. That is, strategies to stay away from drugs or to decrease the risks of contracting HIV and STDs.

O’Sullivan’s pictures aren’t going to end up in a high-end art gallery on Newbury Street. They’re part of Pira’s Outside In project, a collection he calls “Invisible Faces,” which looks to shine a light on youth homelessness. “We all have talents and resources we can give back to society,” Pira says snapping away. “My talent happens to be photography.”

Pira’s pictures of O’Sullivan and a handful of other homeless kids are now featured in Harvard Square in the alley between Church Street and Massachusetts Avenue. Thirty-five black-and-white faces tacitly provoke and inspire right next to the Harvard Coop, standing tall at three-by-four-and-a-half feet and daring passersby to notice them. The photographer hopes that by showcasing them in such a public area, people will take a second look at the homeless youths they might instinctively ignore. After Harvard Square, Pira will travel to other cities in the country, like New York, Los Angeles and Denver, continuing to take pictures of homeless youth and showcasing them publicly.

The Outside In project was inspired by Pira’s stint as an intern in the Massachusetts State House. He advocated for Bill H.3838, which would “provide housing and support services to address the needs of unaccompanied homeless youth.” Much to Pira’s anguish, no action was taken, forcing him to take matter into his own hands.

“That day, I realized I had two choices: To do nothing or to do something,” Pira says. He chose the latter. “I was just too tired of hearing the word ‘deficit.’ There’s always going to be a deficit.”

Pira is seeking an advanced degree at Salem State University, but makes it clear that the project has nothing to do with his studies. Rather, it was something he decided to do on his own. What Pira really aspires is to challenge the stereotypical notion of homelessness. According to the photographer, society thinks of the homeless as “the old, the drug addicts and the drunks.” He’s trying to make people understand that it’s not always like that. As O’Sullivan points out in his picture, sometimes home simply isn’t a supportive environment.

In the portrait, O’Sullivan holds a cardboard piece with the phrase “home is not supportive” transcribed with a marker, followed by an asterisk and the word “homophobia.” Those who participate in the project are invited to take a piece of cardboard and write down something they would like to tell the world. Their works evoke internal and external struggles and vary from Bob Marley quotes to phrases like “this face is blank because it could be yours” and “home isn’t safe.”

“You know, that was something we didn’t even think of at first,” Pira says, regarding the cardboard signs. However, he and Ayala Livny, Youth on Fire’s project manager, felt it was important to give the youth a voice. “To display the message with a face makes it that much more powerful and grabs the viewer’s attention,” he says.

The exhibit also challenges notions regarding homelessness. As one of Pira’s subjects poetically writes on her handmade sign, a home is more than just a roof with four walls. “A house superficially scratches the surface,” she writes. “A home comes from the soul and lasts forever.”

Livny was eager to have Youth on Fire be a part of Pira’s project. She says that Pira’s pictures are powerful and catch “people’s resilience and strength,” which is exactly what she was expecting before allowing the photographer to use Youth on Fire’s residents for his pictures. To her, it’s important to give the homeless populaton a sense of community and belonging.

“These are kids that can sometime feel invisible and marginalized,” she says. “It’s important to them to be the center of attention. It’s important to them to be looked at by the eye of the camera.”

Pira nods in agreement. To see oneself in a picture gives a “sense of pride that does not come easily,” he says. “We get it all the time. We take a picture of ourselves and instantly put in on Facebook. They can’t do that.”

That sense of pride is displayed by Ezekiel Weyscheider, a 19-year-old member of Youth of Fire who got his portrait taken by Pira. As soon as Pira showed Weyscheider his picture, the young man giggled, mentioning that he had never seen himself wearing the colorful shirt he had on. Luckily, the rainbow-patterned print gets a “thumbs up” from the young model.

While he’s more than willing to be a part of the project, O’Sullivan isn’t convinced it will create change. The 20-year-old says he feels anxious that nothing is going to happen.”

Pira, on the other hand, sees it differently. “I’m not focused on who doesn’t get affected, but rather on who is,” he says.

Hundreds of pedestrians pass by the exhibition daily. Many do stop and glance at the black-and-white photos, but most just rush through the alley without even lifting their head, possibly late for work or trying to escape the winter chill. Some even use the alleyway to grab a smoke, literally turning their backs to the youth staring them in the face. However, as Pira alluded, those who do look up are immediately touched.

Pira has already seen concrete results from his exhibition. He proudly tells the story of homeless kids who have been offered jobs and received some money thanks to his public art installation. Pedestrians are starting to recognize the “invisible faces” and are, quite literally, starting to notice them.

The photographer finds that AS the most rewarding aspect of the project so far. “To have these kids be recognized and offered help because of my pictures literally made me emotional,” he says. “It forever changed my outlook on humanity. When I started this project, I expected to change people’s lives, but I never expected it would change mine.”

Livny says she too has seen a positive response from the community. The Harvard Square Business Association (HSBA), for example, was extremely supportive of the project and helped sponsor the exhibition alongside the Cambridge Arts Council. Livny called them “remarkable” and says she was glad to see a business association “so tolerant, but also willing to support and encourage” a project like Outside In.

For Pira, the most important aspect of the project is that his models feel like a part of the community. Weyscheider agrees. “I don’t want to come across as a symbol of weakness or negativity,” he says. “I want people to know I’m happy no matter what.”

Pira adds: “That’s why I ask them to smile. I ask my clients to smile, and [the Youth on Fire participants] are no different from them.”

As Pira continues his crusade against youth homelessness throughout the country, the photos of the city’s once forgotten – like O’Sullivan and Weyschedier – will silently hang on the walls of the Harvard Square alley, provoking passersby to notice Cambridge’s invisible faces.

The public art will be on display as long as the wheat plaster holding up Pira’s work weathers the elements. The temporary nature of the exhibit is a painful metaphor alluding to the fragility of Cambridge’s homeless population as they endure New England’s harsh winter. The installation can be gone tomorrow.

Meanwhile, if you look closely in the eyes of many of Pira’s subjects, there’s a glimmer of hope. Despite the incomprehensible reality of day-to-day life on the streets, they somehow manage to smile.