Doctor turns photos of homeless SF residents into huge street-facing exhibit

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Walking home from work, Dr. Eduardo Peña Dolhun meets people living on the sidewalks along Polk Street and Broadway. He had done this walk hundreds of times before one evening, on a whim, he stopped in front of a man who was resting on the sidewalk and said, “Hello sir, I’m a community doctor, are you- you homeless? “

That minute-long conversation ended when Dolhun filmed an iPhone video clip and still image with the camera he always carried. He never saw this man again, an HIV-positive US Air Force veterinarian named Reginald. But he’d like to, if only to let Reginald know that his portrait, smiling with a Giants cap, is now a 10-foot-tall photo hanging on an exterior wall of the former High School of Commerce across from SFJAZZ at the corner of Franklin and Fell Streets.

Reginald’s was the first of 31 oversized portraits that make up “Facing Homelessness Together,” each photo in a giant open-air gallery window space that normally features portraits of the jazz giants. It opened Sunday morning in a 45-degree overcast sky with Dolhun standing in a corner looking at pictures of 31 friends he now knows by name.

“It was all inspired by my homeless neighbors,” said Dolhun, 56, who runs a family practice at California Pacific Medical Center. “It was just me walking by and I saw someone sitting on cold concrete and saying ‘what’s your name?’ It’s that simple. “

After taking this first portrait of Reginald two years ago, Dolhun went to the Leica store and invested $ 15,000 for another camera and a 50mm lens that took his skills beyond a amateur who had never taken a photography course. He felt he owed a more professional quality to the people who agreed to be photographed.

“You are not at your best when you sleep outside on cardboard,” he said. “I didn’t want to take a photo that would only perpetuate stereotypes that they are inherently inferior to a worthy human being.”

He was carrying dear Leica in a Filson fly fishing bag along with antibiotics and wound care supplies to treat his subjects’ skin infections as they chatted, along with an emergency blanket and solution of oral rehydration DripDrop, a product he had. invented. When Dolhun immersed himself in the project, he grabbed his kit bag for lunch, along with medical prep intern Kate Brickner, and headed out for the streets.

“We were going to allies and places that a lot of people would avoid,” Brickner said. “A lot of people would be moved by recounting the events that prompted them to take to the streets, but they wanted to share their stories.”

Dolhun had seen the wall galleries facing the street in front of SFJAZZ when he looked out the lobby windows during intermission at a Pink Martini show. He knew this would be the place to show his portraits.

“I didn’t want an indoor champagne event,” he said. “My homeless neighbors are out in the cold and I wanted people to see them outside in the cold. “

To book the wall gallery, he called the main line for SFJAZZ and asked for Randall Kline, founder of SFJAZZ. While Dolhun was giving his presentation, Kline searched the internet, learning that the doctor received the 2017 Mayo Clinic Alumni Association Humanitarian Award, for his volunteer work during typhoons and earthquakes in Haiti, Pakistan and Nepal.

Kline has offered a month-long exhibition that will coincide with the 12-minute documentary short “FOG” which premieres January 21 at SFJAZZ. The short video interviews recorded by Dolhun make up the film directed by DreamWorks editor Michael Pedraza, with soundtrack by Bob Weir and Joe Satriani. Doctors Outreach, a 501c3 charity, supported the film project.

Dolhun paid to print the images on vinyl to withstand outdoor conditions on the gallery wall.

“My intention was not to be political,” Dolhun said. “Being homeless is not who you are. This is what you are going through.

Despite the atmospheric improvement in the cold Sunday morning, or perhaps because of it, none of the 31 homeless people came to see their images measuring 10 feet high and six feet wide.

“I couldn’t get people to come,” Dolhun said. It wasn’t that they wouldn’t show up, but he couldn’t find them. “They are always moving,” he said. But he remains hopeful. He now carries with him a stash of small LED flashlights and if he sees any of his subjects, he will invite them to spend the night and light up Franklin and Fell’s corner to light up the pictures.

Homeless Drew Ross cycled past Sunday. He didn’t recognize any of his friends in the portraits, but he definitely did recognize the quality of life they convey.

“I see stories, I see pain,” Ross said. “I see a lot of people who look tired.”

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @samwhiting sf

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