Justin Bettman Photography

Posts Tagged ‘The Bagel Project

Urban Decay

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The folks at Urban Decay did a write up on my series the bagel project. Click here to check out the whole project.

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January 18, 2013 at 9:53 pm

The Bagel Project- San Francisco

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This past Friday I had a meeting with Ford Models in San Francisco and after I decided to meet up with my friend Lisa and do some Bagel Project photos. The first place we went was Dolores Park in the Mission.

The first individual we talked to went by Dromo. He was from Los Angeles and decided to move up to San Francisco because he said the people were nicer. His biggest passion was music and he said his most valuable possession was his mandolin. He had clearly done drugs in the past because his memory and thoughts weren’t completely there but he was without a doubt one of the warmest and most caring people I had talked to. He was very interested in my life and was more into asking me questions than answering questions I asked him.

After talking to Dromo we left Dolores Park and walked towards Mission Street. Outside of a bookstore we came across a man with a headband, just sitting and enjoying the day. He introduced himself as Birdman. He was fairly quiet but I could tell he was extremely intelligent. After I asked him a few questions, he gave me and Lisa each a piece of paper with his thoughts. I will try to scan it and put it on my blog soon.

The final individual we talked to was schizophrenic so it was really hard to understand his thoughts. Here’s a picture of him.

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May 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm

The Bagel Project

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This past week, I left Los Angeles for the summer and came home (Silicon Valley) to work at a start-up company for the summer. I haven’t done The Bagel Project in a while so I decided that since I’m in a new city, I should give it a shot.

I decided the best place to go would be Downtown San Jose since it’s the closest urban city to where I live. I called up my friend Courtney to assist, we went and picked up a dozen bagels, and made our way to Downtown San Jose.

The first stop we made was St. James park. As we pulled up, it was very clear that this was going to be our best bet for meeting homeless people in the area; there were dozens of them, laying out on the grass, trying to stay warm on a chilly overcast morning.

We scoped out the area and found an African American man sitting under a tree alone so we decided to approach him. He introduced himself as Kenniker, a 52 year old, originally from Oakland California. Enthusiastic and easily relatable, Kenniker had no problem opening up and telling us about his life. One of the first things he told us was that he was bi-sexual, though he preferred males. He had multiple partners in the past and lost his husband Gary due to AIDS; Kenniker also told us he has been positive with HIV for 22 years. Due to his condition, he chose to become homeless 2 years ago because it put him at the top of the list for the HIV meds and he was also given them for free. He then said that he also wanted to leave the place he was living because of the rampant drug problems and prostitutes in the complex he was living. Kenniker said that he had a meth problem for 20 years and a drinking problem, but now he attends AA and has been sober since December of last year. One comment that Kenniker said that really stuck out to me was that he said he didn’t feel like he had to go out of California to travel the world, the world comes here to California. When I asked him what his most prized possession was, he said it was his integrity. It’s always interesting to see if people respond to that question with a material possession or not, I think it really reveals a lot about a person.

Carmella, the next lady we talked to, wasn’t nearly as social. We approached her while she was sitting on the sidewalk, sipping on orange soda. She told us she was from East Palo Alto and her favorite thing was her son. She said that living on the street and being homeless can be scary due to the fights that occur. When I asked if I could take her picture, she was initially hesitant because she said she was embarrassed that her hair looked so bad since bugs were eating away at it; that comment really caught my attention and made me realize the safety hazards of not having basic shelter and access to showers.

The next individual we talked to was Mike, also known as Rambo. He said he’s traveled all over, spending the majority of his time in Arizona, LA, and San Jose. He had a hard time hearing us because he was partially deaf, though he didn’t let his disability inhibit communication. It was sad to realize how many of these homeless I’ve talked to have disabilities or emotional problems.

Next we talked to Don. He was extremely hard to understand due to how drugged out he was. He was one of the only homeless people I have met and talked to who was blatantly on drugs, making it pretty much impossible for us to communicate. When I asked him what his favorite thing was, he said himself.

Overall it was a great day!

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May 24, 2011 at 7:54 pm

The Bagel Project- Venice Beach

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For the full photo series, go to my website.


Recently the weather has been pretty rainy which has put a damper on the shoots I’ve planned. The weather finally cleared up yesterday and I decided I wanted to do another chapter of The Bagel Project. This time I wanted to venture outside of downtown Los Angeles so I went to Venice Beach. My assistant for the day was my friend Devon Feldmeth who did a phenomenal job!

We got to Venice Beach, unloaded all the gear, and we started towards the main strip when we came across a man peacefully reading on the grass. His name was Elliot; he explained that he moved here after Hurricane Katrina washed away his place in New Orleans. He disclosed that his only love was his guitar and that it was all he needed to make him happy. Elliot explained that he watched youtube videos in the library to learn how to play the guitar. He claimed to know Justin Bieber personally which I found pretty funny. Elliot said he didn’t want his picture taken so we decided to make our way to the main strip and look for some other interesting individuals.

Jan (The Queen of Venice)

After walking for a few minutes, we saw a cheerful lady posted on a bench with her belongings stowed safely by her side. She introduced herself in a raspy voice as Jan or The Queen of Venice. Jan explained that she was almost finished studying psychology in college when she was diagnosed with Hepatitis C. When the doctors revealed that she didn’t have much time to live, she becamedepressed and could not finish school. Jan decided to leave South Illinois to come to California to say goodbye to her sister before she passed. Upon her arrival, Jan was surprised to find that her sister wasn’t in the best situation, but was too embarrassed to tell Jan before having her come out to California to visit. Within a short time, Jan said that her sister ran into issues of her own and Jan found herself to behomeless on the streets of Hollywood. For reasons she didn’t wish to disclose, Hollywood didn’t work out for her and she decided to venture to Santa Monica.

Once she made her way to Santa Monica, she found herself in an environment that was not  very “homeless friendly”. Determiningthat Venice would be a better fit for her, she ventured down the beach. After being homeless for a while, she painfully revealed that she was kidnapped and underwent the most traumatic 4 days of her life. Following this harrowing event, Jan said that a woman took her in for a month to let her figure everything out and that literally saved her life.

Eventually Jan said that she got a better grip on things. She met with a guy who said that he was trying to start an organization to help the homeless. Eager to have her story heard, Jan started working with him and writing stories at the library explaining what she hadendured as a homeless person. After a few months she spoke at the Venice Council and was proud to say she’s been an activist. Unfortunately she said that she felt like she was taken advantage of by this guy. She concluded he was just doing charitable work for the organization to impress his girlfriends. She said that after months with  no communication from him, he would suddenly wake her up while she was sleeping to have Jan explain to his girlfriends how he saved her life. Jan went on to express her frustration, contending that he was just putting on act and didn’t really care about the homeless cause.

Now Jan said she considers herself to the mother of many in Venice. She said that she tries to be the Mom for these younger individuals in Venice Beach who may lack direction. It was amazing to see that someone who had been through so much remained so positive and happy. I was amazed that she was 54 years old; she sure didn’t look it, especially after being homeless for 3 years.


When we explained what The Bagel Project was, she then said that her friend Shane would have an interesting story to tell so we went and talked to him. Shane immediately caught our attention. The first story Shane shared was how he jumped in front of a man’s knifeto take the blade for a lady and thought he was going to die within 3 minutes. He said then he tried stabbing the guy back to show him that he was not dead yet. He said he was eventually able to get away from the guy and kept praying, repeating a mantra, “If I see the sunrise I’ll be ok… If I see the sunrise I’ll be ok.” As the sun came up, covered in ants and blood, he walked 2 miles down a steep road and was able to hitchhike 38 miles to the closest hospital.

After explaining his near death story, he went on to tell us was born in Utah and moved to Tuscon when he was 13, raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. He said he graduated high school early at the top of his class and moved out of the house when he was 18 because he was being abused, raped, and beaten at home. Shane said that he no longer considers himself to be a Jehovah’s Witness, but he still claimed to be a Witness of God.

He proclaimed that he could read 6 languages and was completely self taught. Realizing that we were in disbelief, he went on to speak Hebrew and to demonstrate to us that he really knew all these languages that he claimed to have taught himself. Shane said that the best thing his dad ever did was throw books at him, at the age of 5; he read the dictionary all the way through multiple times until he was 9. From ages 9-12, he said he studied every page of the Britannica Encyclopedia and illustrated to us a sample of the knowledge he had absorbed. Shane believes that E.E. Cummings is one of the world’s most influential poets and that he greatly inspired him.

When I asked him to reveal his most cherished possession, he said it was his insight. This is always an interesting question to ask homeless people since they don’t often have too many material possessions. I asked him what what his biggest dream was, he replied it was to be a father. He told me that he had a son that he hasn’t seen since the son was 4 and has no idea what he’s up to now. It was amazing to hear how many of the homeless people’s aspirations are similar to those in the upper class society that I’m typically surrounded by.

After talking to Shane, I couldn’t help but think about how brilliant and intelligent he was. It really made me wonder what he could have accomplished in his life if he had not suffered through such a difficult experience as a youth. It made me feel so fortunate to have such a positive upbringing and recognize the importance of my own nurturing childhood experience.

The next individual that we spoke to was Darren, a warm and charming man in his wheel chair. Darren immediately started talking about his rough upbringing; he said that in a matter of 4 years, he was in 8 foster homes. In 7 of his 8 foster homes, he was either physically, mentally, or psychologically abused; he went on to say he has so thankful that he was still able to turn out as well as he did. Darren was finally adopted when he was 6 years old and still lives with his Mom that adopted him. When Darren was 11, he said his dad had his first heart attack and ended up living until 1997 when he passed away from Parkinson’s disease.

Darren later told us how he was in a coma for 27 days from an auto accident that occurred when his friend was driving and hit a pole. He explained that he had to learn how to do everything again; walk, eat, and even talk normally. It was clear when talking to Darren that he had suffered the trauma from some sort of brain injury, though considering the circumstances he was still very well spoken. It was incredible to see how positive and warm Darren was considering the terrible childhood he had experienced.


The last person we talked to for the day was Puck. Perched up on top of a grassy hill, Puck had the best set-up I’d ever seen: he had a solar panel that was running his plasma tv and stereo. Puck said that he moved out to California after Hurricane Katrina. Back in New Orleans, he said he was a chef at a restaurant, but due to his leg problems he could no longer work. He said that the next task on his to do list was to meet with a social security judge about getting financial assistance to pay for surgery for his leg. He also told me how he really wants to be married and have a wife. It seemed like a unifying desire of many of these homeless individuals was to eventually have a spouse and kids someday.

Doing The Bagel Project at Venice Beach was definitely an enlightening experience. I felt that the people I talked to were much happier and comfortable with the situations that they were in; I felt a strong sense of community amongst all the homeless people.

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March 28, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Clarence – The Bagel Project

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After feeling so consumed with midterm studying and lack of time for photography, I decided it was time to do another chapter of The Bagel Project. Most of my friends have been pretty busy studying for finals, but fortunately my good buddy Aneesh Chaganty was free and happy to assist. We made our way to the bagel store, picked up the a dozen bagels, and went on our way. We parked at Wilshire and Grand and began the day.

We encountered our first individual, Clarence. I usually have a pretty keen sense of intuition, predictingwho will be interested in sharing their personal story versus who will likely be reluctant. Initially I thought he would be the latter, but I decided to give it a shot. When I first approached him, he was muttering and talking to himself. I asked if he had a second of his time to talk to us and he nodded. I sat down and introduced myself and Aneesh. As Clarence became more comfortable with us, he explained that he moved out from Maryland about five years ago searching for work and that he was a jack of all trades. After explaining his past, he expressed an interest in learning about mine: where I was from, what I was studying, and my plans for the future. Once I told him more about my past, he started to open up even more and told me he had done things he wasn’t proud of; he’d been in fights with Hell’s Angels, Black Panthers, and had even killed some people. He then went on to tell me that he had been run over by a car one night after getting knocked in the head; noticing that we were  a bit confused, he explained that he had killed the man’s brother. Once he finished telling his story, he grinned and told us he could still walk. After he finished, I offered him a bagel like usual. At first he seemed hesitant to take it, but I insisted. It’s interesting that some of these people don’t really even want a bagel, they really just want the opportunity to tell their story to someone who will listen.

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March 22, 2011 at 7:12 pm

The Bagel Project

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This weekend I decided to start a personal series project since I’ve been focusing on commissioned work so much lately. I had done a series a while back in San Francisco of some homeless people and I wanted to do something again pertaining to homeless people but this time in Los Angeles. Also, I wanted to get people’s stories instead of photographing them so quickly. I read Joey L’s blog on a street series he did and realized that strobes are legal if you don’t have them touching the ground so I decided to have some assistants help me out. Big thank you to Emily Ibarra, Anthony Pham, and Danny Erb.

Since the homeless people were giving something to me (their stories, expressions, and time) I wanted to give them something in return. I thought for a while about what would be good to give them and originally I was going to give them cup and noodles since they were inexpensive for me and would keep them warm. Unfortunately carrying around hot water in addition to cup and noodles would be difficult and they aren’t that healthy. After giving it more thought, I figured bagels would be perfect; they are inexpensive, lightweight, and pretty much everyone likes them. So I went to a local donut shop and bought a dozen bagels.

On Friday I went out with my friend Emily to downtown LA but unfortunately the weather was pretty drizzly so we decided to walk around, scout locations, and see where most the homeless people were congregated. Last year I went to Skid Row for photos but I decided to seek out homeless people in new locations this time.

After having the knowledge of where some of the homeless people were in downtown, I went out on Saturday with my friend Anthony Pham. We used an octobox with an AB 800 and a vagabond II to power everything.


Roosevelt was my first subject of the day on Saturday. After talking to a few other homeless people who weren’t interested in being photographed (I got rejected quite often), I asked Roosevelt if he would mind giving us a minute of his time to talk. Roosevelt moved out to Los Angeles from St. Louis about 35 years ago. He was wearing patriotic clothing and was in a wheelchair; I found it ironic that someone named Roosevelt, and a patriotic guy, was homeless. One of the first questions I asked individuals is if they have kids and Roosevelt told me he was a grandfather. It’s always fascinating to me to understand how someone would let their parents end up in such a situation. Overall Roosevelt was warm, appreciative, and just a genuine man.


Pierre was sitting under an overhang by himself just looking out and watching the traffic when we approached him. He was pretty quiet and definitely had a gentle vibe. He said he had been homeless for about 4 years but besides that was pretty quiet and reserved.

Unknown Subject #1:

I tried talking to him but I’m pretty sure he couldn’t speak English. I always try to get verbal consent from my subjects before photographing them but he was extremely confused, however when I gave him the bagel and motioned my camera he gave me a nod. This photo stood out to me because it seemed as though his two most prized possessions at the moment are his bagel and cigarette, two goods that many individuals wouldn’t usually value.

Unknown Subject #2

This was the most upsetting individual to photograph by far. As we were winding up on Saturday, we saw across him across the street yelling uncontrollably in jiberish. We weren’t sure if he was mad about something or just yelling for the sake of it. I’m pretty sure I saw him a while ago when I was doing a shoot in downtown for The Cataracs. Since he was yelling jiberish uncontrollably it was hard to have a conversation but I signalled giving him the bagel for some photos and he graciously accepted the offer. When I went back to shoot on Monday, I saw him walking with a box of coins and he wasn’t yelling so I wonder what was going through his mind before. I gave him another bagel when I saw him again and I’m pretty sure he remembered me.


Daryl was the second subject I photographed on Sunday. When Danny and I approached him, I could immediately tell he was happy to talk and have someone to talk to. He was originally conversing with Leroy (below) but when we came over he gave us his full attention. Daryl said he moved out here from Indiana 2 years ago. This was hard for me to fathom seeing that he appeared to be just about my age; I could never imagine being homeless so young. I could definitely tell that he still had youth in him and full of emotion. I later realized that he came out to LA with his grandpa which I’ll explain later.


As I mentioned earlier, Leeroy and Daryl were having a conversation when we first approached them. I could tell immediately that Leeory was going to be a character, given the charisma and charm he exerted. Leeroy had moved around from various areas but is originally from Syracuse, New York. He said that he has grand children and talks with his family a couple times a month, though he doesn’t want to tell his kids how to raise their kids. I found it so fascinating how many of these homeless people seemed happier than many of my friends and people I communicate with. It really illustrated that material wealth doesn’t correlate to happiness. Leeroy said that he’s been homeless and in the area for so long that most of the people around the area respect and know him.


After talking with Leroy and Daryl, we saw another man sitting on the bench a few feet down who was looking at us and seemed fairly interested so we decided to approach him. He turned out to be Daryl’s grandpa, he said he hitch hiked out here from Nashville a few years ago and Daryl offered to come with him. Prior to moving out here, Gramps was a chef and due to a heart attack, he was unable to keep that profession and decided to retire. He had some very interesting stories and much like Leeroy, he is well respected and people know not to mess with him. He was telling me how he doesn’t mind the situation he’s in and really enjoys reading; he said that he has a library card and goes there frequently. When I asked him about any run-ins with police offers, he said that since he’s been out here, he’s only been talked to by police twice and that was because he slept in later than he was supposed to. I asked him about how safe he felt and he said that since people respected him, he never has really felt uncomfortable. He said he’s been saving up and in March he’ll be going to Vegas to see some of his old friends and catch up with them.


Out of everyone we talked to, Mike was undoubtedly the most social. He had no problem talking and talking and talking, which was a change from most of the people we encountered. Mike said he moved to LA from Pomona about 30 years ago. Throughout our conversation, he frequently referred back to religion and God. When I asked him how he felt about being homeless, I found it fascinating that he said that he’s living a great life since God’s watching over him. Later in our conversation it came out that Mike was a photographer which I found very interesting, he definitely knew a thing or two about photography. He shared with me how last year someone promised to give him a camera for Christmas and sure enough, they gave it to him. He then went on to tell me that it got stolen by another homeless person a few months later, and he remembered the exact date which was remarkable. It really shows how losing an item like a camera can be so disappointing and upsetting to someone who doesn’t have much. Mike said he has a place to move into all lined up so it was exciting to hear that some of the people would be moving out of this lifestyle.


Frank was the last subject we talked to of the day. He was extremely quiet and I think he may have been mentally handicapped. He was gentle and quite grateful for the bagel. Other than telling us he was native to Los Angeles, we didn’t really get much of a story out of him.


All in all this has been one of the most amazing and fulfilling projects I have undertaken. I felt so much more connected with Los Angeles and homeless people in general and it was both amazing and painful to hear their stories. It made me realize that homeless people and if you give them the time to tell their story, they have some deep knowledge and insite. I think I’m going to continue this project, if anyone wants to join me feel free to let me know!

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February 22, 2011 at 11:03 pm