By Susie Steimle

SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) — A Bay Area photographer has given away thousands of free headshots to homeless clients and she says the project hasn’t only changed her life, but has also helped her subjects see themselves in a different light.

When Virginia Becker first started taking professional headshots of homeless clients, she never imagined that it would be her own inhibitions that would end up on full display. Like many people, when Becker saw a homeless person on the sidewalk, she used to cross the street and avoid them.

“I was the girl, when I saw a blue tarp on the side of the road, that would roll her terrible eyes, gnarl her terrible teeth and go, ‘Why do they do that? Why don’t they just go to a shelter? Why? Why? Why?'” she said.

Now, she sees the homeless through an entirely different lens. Three and a half years ago, Becker started working with the Downtown Streets Team, a nonprofit that connects homeless people to much need resources in San Jose.

While volunteering, she started taking pictures. She’s now given away nearly 5,000 free headshots to homeless clients through her Blue Tarp Project.

“Certainly they would be more glamorous pictures if they were black and white and gritty and told a story. but I don’t think that that does any good, and I think that it perpetuates the myth of what a homeless person is,” Becker said. “This is real.”

She wants her audience to see the homeless as the really are. Take, for instance, her client Sophia Ortiz, who wasn’t always so comfortable in front of the camera, though that’s hard to imagine if you see her now.

“I didn’t want to look in the mirror to put on makeup,” Ortiz said. She first lost her housing when her mother passed away. The loss drove her back to an abusive relationship in order for her to remain housed. But all of that abuse changed the way she saw herself.

“I really didn’t feel like I mattered anymore,” she said.

Ortiz started sleeping on the street and hiding out at BART stations, afraid to inconvenience her family, whom she didn’t ask for help.

“I would lie to my family, tell them I was staying with my friends because I didn’t want to intrude,” she admitted.

But that’s when she also found the Downtown Streets Team. In a matter of months, she found a job and an apartment. She’s one of the program’s fastest graduates to this day.

“The worst time in my life ended up being the best time of my life because I got my self worth through me,” Ortiz said.

She remembers what it felt like to be invisible and judged by strangers. It’s why it means so much to her that someone like Becker, who in the past might have chosen to avoid her gaze, is instead the person who helped her feel truly seen.

Ortiz poses happily with a sign signaling her progress from homelessness. (Photo: Virginia Becker)

“That’s what happens with pictures. I didn’t see, I didn’t have self worth until I started getting these pictures,” Ortiz said.

“I see pride, when I see that picture I see pride.”

“I wonder how many people can be really honest with themselves and say, ‘I see everybody exactly the same,” Becker said. “I couldn’t have said that before, but I can now.”

Becker’s Blue Tarp Project is on display at the MLK Library in San Jose through the end of February. After that, Becker is hoping to find a new home to exhibit in. She’s hoping for an even larger space so she can include more information about what the region is doing to help the homeless.

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