my alumni experience

Giving a Face and a Name to Homelessness

Photographer Jill Booth Macdonell '57

Homelessness. To many in today's society, this term represents a nameless, faceless social condition. A segment of society often ignored, misunderstood and maligned. Jill Booth Macdonell '57 of Sacramento, Calif., is passionate about changing society's notion of what it means to be homeless. Through the lens of her camera, Jill uses photography to educate, inspire and motivate.

For Jill, it all began in the early 1990s after she had taken some photography classes at a local college. During this time, she was also serving on the board of Francis House, a resource and counseling center for the poor in Sacramento, where she volunteered as an alcohol and drug counselor and also provided resource counseling for the city's poor.

Blending her photographic talent and her desire to help the needy, Jill decided to try her hand at photojournalism while doing her work with the poor. She began creating poster-size black and white photographs, documenting the lives of the homeless. Almost immediately, the Francis House board members saw the power of her work and imagined how her talents could be used for consciousness-raising and fundraising. Thus, Feast for the Streets was born.

Francis House's annual and biggest fundraiser, Feast for the Streets features Jill's photography exhibit, food from Sacramento's finest chefs and restaurants, music and a live auction. Last year the event raised $25,000, and the goal is to double that figure this year. A permanent collection of Jill's work is on display at Francis House.

A spiritual woman, Jill feels that helping the homeless is her God-given purpose in life. “This work is my ministry,” she says, “and I've been placed on our Earth for this reason. Helping the poor is one of the areas that gives my life great meaning.”

The theme for Jill's work comes through the words of Matthew 25-46: “I was hungry and you fed me…” Through her lens, homelessness is brought to light in a touching way. In Jill's photos these faceless, nameless members of society known simply as the homeless become real people, thus humanizing them and revealing what it means to be poor.

According to Greg Bunker, director of Francis House, “Jill's pictures are profound, capturing the essence of our clientele like no other picture taker has ever done. Her work immediately became part of all our public relations, publications and events, and her work is a permanent and essential part of our collection at Francis House.”

For Jill, her purpose is not simply to take the photographs. For every picture she's taken, she can tell you the name of her subject and the story behind how the person came to be living on the streets. She explains, “I go onto the streets of Sacramento and I go down by the river and to other areas where the homeless are often found. I get to know these people, I develop relationships with them, and I gain their trust. I care deeply about them and, as a result, it can be a challenge emotionally.

“Though I can never completely detach myself emotionally, when I head out with my camera, I know that my mission is to bring people face-to-face with the problem. My goal is for my work to evoke a response in their hearts and raise their consciousness. Hopefully, they then will consider how they might help.”

Her caring nature is evident in her work. “I am always amazed by her knack for capturing the people we see, the work we do, and the human drama that unfolds on a daily basis at Francis House,” says Bunker. “Her demeanor at putting her subjects at ease, as well as her impeccable timing at capturing the right moment or quintessential expression is what makes her work so great.” The priest at Jill's church explains, “Jill's photography displays a wonderful gift. When she works with the homeless, she somehow captures in their eyes both their desperate circumstances and the spark of life that keeps them going. She captures their spirit.”

Without a doubt, Jill recognizes the scope of the work to be done in order to fight the problem of homelessness, and she's doing her part. Perhaps Greg Bunker said it best: “Jill serves as a great example of what a difference one individual can make in this world by pursuing her creative interests and being willing to show her talents for the greater good.”

-Tracey Austin