Observations: Meet Zoe. She is one of us

Published on: November 21, 2012

American writer and newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne once famously said that newspapers have the ability to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Indeed, in Dunne’s era that may have been the case as it is claimed that President Theodore Roosevelt had his columns read during White House staff meetings to keep tabs on public sentiment.

Things have changed a lot for newspapers in the last century. Even media titan Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation, the parent of the Wall Street Journal and Fox News, recently sent a tweet to a disgruntled follower saying, “Haven’t you heard of the Internet? No one controls the media or will ever again.”

Yes, the Internet — the frontier of new media and the scapegoat for the failing business models of organizations that refuse to change with the times. No one controls it, but often it lacks self-control as more than ever conspiracy theories fly unabated and un-vetted, fed and consumed by those who seek only to justify their own beliefs and paradigms. But today, more so than newspapers, it now has the power to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The problem is, will anyone listen or care?

Four years ago, Ben Montgomery wrote one of the best articles I ever read in the St. Petersburg Times (now called the Tampa Bay Times). The article entitled “He died because he was poor” was published on July 27, 2008. It told the story of Dallas Carter’s last day on earth. Clearly, Mr. Carter made bad choices but to me it seems the world was increasingly stacked against him and people like him.

One day Mr. Carter must have decided that his two young boys, children who, like Mr. Carter, often went hungry, would be better off without him. He had no arrest record, his neighbors knew him as a loving father and a good man, but a man who struggled to get by. One day he opened fire on a charcoal grill on the patio of his apartment. When the police arrived, he waited for his children to run from the building and then walked out the door carrying a rifle and a pistol. He was shot dead, leaving his boys fatherless and forever scarring the police officers who felt they had no choice but to shoot him. The note he left behind was an effort to offer an explanation and confirmation that he did not intend to hurt anyone. He felt he had no choice.

In Mr. Carter’s world, there were a lot of things that involved the words, “no choice.” Perhaps most heartbreakingly, that included sometimes watching his children go hungry. He is now long forgotten but I don’t think the world is better off without him. I am grateful to Ben Montgomery of the Tampa Bay Times for sharing his story in such an eloquent, compassionate and respectful way. I am certain his words somehow managed to comfort the afflicted.

Zoe is a woman who lives under a freeway in the Overtown area of Miami. It is a rough place, the home of the homeless, crack-addicted and hopeless.

I know of Zoe because of Magnum Photos, Leica Camera AG, and photographer Jim Goldberg. Magnum, one of the world’s premiere photo agencies, is sponsoring a project called “Postcards from America,” which shows slices of life in this nation that go beyond the center of the bell curve that most of us are fortunate to live in. The project ventured across the nation, ending up in Miami to document the city as the election approached. They weren’t searching for the politicians or the power brokers, they were searching for those the politicians and much of society often choose to ignore.

It can’t be an easy project for the photographers like Mr. Goldberg. It takes some courage to carry $30,000 in Leica camera gear and walk under an overpass where people are smoking crack. It takes even more courage to make an effort to listen to the stories of people who have lost hope; it also takes a great deal of heart.

Every so often, such a person steps up. The Congressman I once worked for had that heart and courage. Each day while crossing the street from the Longworth House Office Building to the Capitol, he would encounter a homeless man with a sign protesting something Congress was or was not doing. The Congressman would stop, reach out, touch the man’s arm and ask him how he was. Later, as we walked on to the Capitol, he told me that little by little he was learning the man’s story about how he ended up where he was. If nothing else, the Congressman showed that man that someone cared about him.

And now there is Zoe. She didn’t come into this life with a black eye from being punched in the face. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, and perhaps in her deepest dreams at night she sees glimmers of the life most of us take for granted: a life of comfort, support and love. Yes, it might be argued that she made her own bad choices, and there will be no loss to society when she is found dead under the freeway overpass she calls home. But is that really the kind of society we want? Is America a land of compassion or a brutal and heartless place of the survival of the fittest — or the luckiest, those born with means and trust funds?

No politician sought her vote. Nor is any politician likely to support her. She is on no marketer’s radar. She is forgotten, discarded, ignored and punched in the face. But she is one of us. She is a human being, a woman with a heart; perhaps a heart buried under calluses formed by pain and disappointment but a heart nonetheless. She is a child of God. I can’t possibly make the argument that you or anyone else owes her anything, but in my opinion, she is afflicted and she deserves some comfort. At a minimum, Mr. Goldberg did just that by sharing her story. She is not a faceless statistic that will someday end up buried in a single paragraph deep inside the Miami Herald’s Metro section. She has dreams, too, at least at night, and in those moments before wakefulness, perhaps she even feels a fleeting sense of hope.

When Mr. Goldberg took her portrait, she told him she was looking for someone, a person who had something she needed. As he walked away from the overpass where people hid their faces while smoking crack pipes or stared at him in hatred, he found a discarded, waterlogged photo album in the weeds. It smelled badly so he wrapped in plastic and took it home. He later decided the photo album is probably what Zoe was looking for. Inside was a tenuous link to another life, perhaps just a little bit better than what her life is now.

I don’t think Zoe is asking or expecting anything from the government or anyone’s tax dollars. It seems she is past expecting anything from life; she is alone on the fringe of society, looking only for something that ties her to a different life in which her dreams weren’t nightmares and her eye wasn’t swollen shut. Perhaps the only thing she is looking for is a waterlogged photo album.

I don’t know what any of us can do for Zoe. But at least now, thanks to Mr. Goldberg, Magnum Photos, and Leica, you know her name. At least now you have some sort of connection to her. She is a human, just like all of us, with a soul and a heart of fears and, perhaps, some deeply buried hope. She is one of us and, although it seems to be often forgotten and sometimes outright ignored, we are all in this together.  I don’t know what to do, though, so I’ll start by saying a prayer for her. And then I’ll ask God for some courage. As one among the comfortable, I would like to be one who can provide some comfort.

Samples from the ongoing Portraits from America project can be seen at