Homelessness is a worldwide issue that brothers and photographers Alexander and Christopher Kiener have been aware of from an early age. Born in New Jersey to parents who migrated to the United States from Europe, they’ve seen various stages of homelessness not only in New Jersey but New York, Barbados and South Florida.
Now, the 16-year-old twins — students at Coral Reef Senior High — are using photography as activism with a show at Florida International University called Art is Homeless.
It came about in order to fulfill a school community-service requirement. They say they wanted to create a project that would open the eyes and ears of people, something that could affect lives. Art is Homeless is intended to make a lasting impression on the community.
Speaking in concert, they said, “We were passengers in a car and passing under an overpass riddled in graffiti. In the maze of graffiti the words ‘art is homeless’ were pronounced.”
So they started going into Overtown and taking photographs of homeless people. Soon they began speaking with them.
Says Alexander: “Many were scared and didn’t want to be approached or talked to. There were some who were open to talk and share their stories. What moved my brother and me most was that many of the people shared that they were simply happy to see a kind face and not that of someone who would try to exploit them in their present state.”
The stories are as diverse as the faces. One image in the show is of a college graduate from Trinidad whose drug habit rendered him homeless. Another, a Vietnam War vet from Georgia, was abandoned by his family after being diagnosed as mentally ill.
A woman who suffers from a debilitating skin disease took a liking to posing for the camera and traded her time for a few dollars for cigarettes and food. One man was high. One woman declared, “I am going to become a model.” There were proposals for sexual exploits and selling drugs, but many just appreciated the human contact.
“Just to speak with them, you get an inside eye on their lives, personalities and reactions to their present state,” Christopher says. “They don’t appear to be homeless people, but rather happy in simply sharing their stories.”
The boys’ father, Joe Kiener, is a self-taught photographer who mentored them through the documentary series. While the grit and life of Art is Homeless is all about Alexander and Christopher, their father is central to the project’s reach and scope.
“When you get to a point in life, where you are lucky enough to have accomplished personal goals and success, you never forget your roots,” he says.
“I was born poor, though I was fortunate to have a good education. I was able to study business, engineering and became a doctor. I have a successful business life and have the added bonus of being able to pursue my interest and hobby in photography and art.
“I want to give back and want my sons grounded in what should be human nature to help others. The habit of turning the other way, while you are sitting in your car and the guy at the red light approaches you, is simply too easy.
“If you turn your sight away from this issue, then you turn away from your brother, sister, mother, father anyone else for the matter. Art is Homeless is a brilliant way to capture the humanity of everyone.”
Says Alexander: “I am inspired to take an approach that can change my outlook and others. It makes me want to do my best and try to contribute with help.”