Dallas’ Best Photography Project That You Probably Don’t Know About
It was a cool November day during the holiday season, and Don “Tortellini” Thomas II’s friends had asked him to go downtown with them to hand out food and clothes to the homeless. Tortellini, a photographer, kept his camera in his car; he didn’t intend to take photographs.
“I just went to fellowship with the homeless and pass out food during the holiday time,” Tortellini says. “But while I was out there, I was able to talk to the homeless and really get context as to why they were homeless.”
Tortellini asked a homeless person if he could take a portrait. The answer was yes. The film photo came out gorgeous, and that’s how Tortellini’s Faces of Dallas project was born. The photographer is compiling a portfolio of portraits and profiles of homeless residents of Dallas.
For now, the collection of photographs is available to be viewed online.
According to Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance’s 2021 Point-in-Time Homeless Count, a survey conducted in late February, there are 4,570 homeless people in Dallas — not only an increase from the 2020 Point-in-Time count, but also a record number. Texas lawmakers recently passed a bill criminalizing unauthorized camping in public spaces; individuals convicted of camping in a public space can be fined up to $500.
In contrast, Tortellini aims to “humanize the homeless,” as he puts it, “through conversation and fellowship.” He is thoughtful and careful in how he goes about photographing subjects for Faces of Dallas.
“To me, when you’re dealing with the homeless, there’s a thin line between education and exploitation,” he says. “For me, I was very delicate with it. I said I’m going to come out here and I want to build a rapport. So maybe for two to three weeks, I didn’t even bring my camera. I just went up to people and really built a rapport, to let them know that their stories are in a safe space with me.”
Tortellini’s documentarian project differs from others, he points out, in that it includes both faces and stories. Faces of Dallas is not simply a compilation of pictures of destitute people. It’s a curation of portraits and profiles. Tortellini doesn’t even have his camera out when he approaches a homeless person; rather, he introduces himself, sits and speaks with them. He then publishes their stories alongside their images.
“For me, what I’m bringing besides just portraits is context,” Tortellini says. “I think with everything you need context. Context changes everybody’s perspective.”
Tortellini is clear that you can’t just contextualize everything away. He’s met murderers, rapists and pedophiles who are homeless because of their ex-convict status. But he’s also encountered so-called violent offenders for whom, whether trafficked or abused, violence was perhaps the only solution.
“You’re at a moral fork in the road,” Tortellini says. “Because if I was someone who had lost someone at the hands of someone who was now homeless, I can’t say that I would want to tell their story. So I always put myself in the shoes of the homeless person, I put myself in the shoes of the victim, I put myself in many shoes. And as a creator, I have to stay in my own shoes and stay in my own place. My job is to tell a story and to give people context of why these people are in these positions..
Of course, not all homeless people are ex-convicts. Not all homeless people deal with addiction or mental illness. Sahari Vaughn, whom Tortellini features in Faces of Dallas, has a master’s degree in psychology. He neither smokes nor drinks nor does drugs. Vaughn says he came to Dallas looking for work, depleted his savings while searching for jobs and now lives on the streets.
“If I were to have a poster child for Faces of Dallas, he would be it,” Tortellini says of Vaughn. “Because for me it really gives you context that you’re a paycheck away from being homeless. You’re one or two missed payments away from being on the streets.”
If anything, then, the numerous profiles in Faces of Dallas reveal the profound complexities, multifaceted realities and disturbing proximity of homelessness, an issue that is oftentimes treated as a distant monolith.
“These are real people, these are real names, these are real stories,” Tortellini says. “That’s very important for you to do, as a creator — to show respect to another human being regardless of what they’ve done.”