Riddled with severe homelessness, mental illness, drugs, violence, and prostitution, San Francisco's Tenderloin district is often characterized as a major blemish on one of the world’s most attractive cities. However, beneath the surface rests a soul unlike any other community in San Francisco.
Website: tendersoulsproject.com | Commissioned by: Personal | Collaborator: Felix Uribe | Mediums: stills, audio, exhibit
"The Tenderloin is a cesspool, where hope and dignity come to die."
From the graphic novel 'A Tenderloin Tale' by James Lowe
TL Resident Raven Badclaw points to an SRO window a man jumped out, committing suicide years back.
I would spend the next three years growing a unique relationship with the community of the Tenderloin. It started when I began serving on GLIDE's Legacy Committee and thereby encouraging young professionals to contribute to the lives of their marginalized neighbors. I gradually moved from the third floor of the GLIDE building to the streets of the Tenderloin accompanied by my camera and my good friend and abundantly talented street photographer Felix Uribe. It took only a handful of confrontational interactions to realize the traditional approach to street photography didn't work in the Tenderloin. If we were to both be true to our mutual value of upholding the dignity of our subjects, and if we desired to document the richly complex and nuanced essence of the community, we would have to start with the relationship and end with the photograph.
Soon enough our frequent outings to neighborhood street corners and SROs would turn into almost a form of meditation. It's where we felt at home, at peace. I began to see myself in people who had nothing to their name, people who have had triumphant victories over tragedy, and even those who were wading in great depths of despair and darkness.
It became clear, that we had a mandate to tell the stories of our forgotten neighbors. We owed it to our new friends to share their stories with a broader audience, as these were often stories that made us look at the world through a new lens. This is how Tender Souls came to be.
Three years ago or so, I got lost walking in the Tenderloin. Like many San Franciscans, the extent of my neighborhood visits prior to that day had been me either driving through in my car (as briskly as possible), or checking out a bar on the "safer" end of the neighborhood. However this time, there weren't two ways about it, I was IN the Tenderloin, and lost on top of that.
I still remembered the feeling that involuntarily consumed me when I first realized I was lost. The hairs on my arms stood up, my chest began gradually get warmer as my breath got shorter, and I thought to my self that I may actually have to finally put my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training to use.
Both men and women laid sprawled along the grimy sidewalks, trying to get some shut eye in the middle of the day. Lines of seemingly hundreds of people wrapped around the building of social service organizations waiting for a free warm meal. Severely mental ill folks traversed the streets with out supervision. Needles, urine, and other miscellaneous debris lined most of the streets and sidewalks.
Once I finally found my destination (GLIDE Memorial Church), I took a deep breath, wiped the sweat from my forehead, and silently asked myself "am I really in San Francisco?". The answer was invariably "yes, the dead center of it".
The Unofficial Mayor of the Tenderloin, Del Seymour
Tender Souls is a longterm photo documentary project uncovering the human stories and therefore complexities of the Tenderloin. We highlight the rich diversity of humanity in the neighborhood using both day in the life documentary photography and audio interviews to tell the stories of community members.
Our aim is to make the unseen, seen -- the unheard, heard. Our dream is that these stories help bridge the divide between the mainstream and the margins, that Tender Souls can be a mirror, reflecting back our very real fragility, as well as our immense strength.
See below for a preview of two Tender Soul stories.
Resident artist and graphic novelist, James Lowe produces his work at his SRO unit on Eddy Street, in the heart of the Tenderloin.
Senior citizen and army veteran Eva Hart lives on the western edge of the Tenderloin at Elk Hotel. A mixup with her army medical records has left her in a state of bureaucratic purgatory for decades.
For more stories and faces from the Tenderloin, visit the project website