This is first in a series of reports on Texas documentary photographers.
Ben Tecumseh DeSoto believes in the power of images to transform hearts and minds. A longtime photojournalist with the Houston Chronicle, now semi-retired to the softer rhythms of Ogden, Utah, he shares a documentary photography library of biblical proportion. Almost hypnotically, his images urge viewers to gaze deep within the searing chasm of human need when our strongest default mechanism — spurred by self-preservation or exhaustion of concern — often impels us to glance at the sad, tragic shadows amongst us and then quickly look away.
In addition to the face of poverty, loss, addiction, and most every form of anguish that can be inflicted upon the mortal frame, DeSoto’s body of work documents the raging leap toward freedom of back-in-the-day punk rockers. In another project, earlier in this century and late in the last, he photographed the lone-wolf community of Houston’s highly individualized artists. Ever curious about the ways that images are made and seen, his attention has also focused on formal experimentation.
Sixty loops around the sun imprinted on his temples, DeSoto still remembers his first camera. “It was a Sears Kodak 126 cartridge loader I got as a sophomore at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena,” he says. “We converted a janitor closet into a darkroom, and I was entranced by the scientific magic of the process when my first image began to emerge in the chemical tray.” Years later, after an education at the University of Houston, where much of his archive resides, DeSoto found his original voice.
“It’s like in literature, when a writer finds a voice that is uniquely theirs,” he explains. “Mine was to be an empowered citizen witness, and the camera provided me with a technical shortcut to that voice.” After college he worked for the Houston Post for a year, and then the Chronicle for a quarter of a century. “Failure and Tragedy,” intoned the somber headline of one story he photographed. “A Life Lost in Prison,” lamented another. “Covenant Home Seeks to Win Trust of Homeless Youths… The Lost Children of Mexico… A Confused Heart… For homeless glue sniffers, highs quickly turn to lows… Solutions are few — and expensive… Harvesting years of neglect and abuse… Giving birth to a bleak legacy… Really caring about the poor… Where hope dies young… Schools often fail those on the edge… The jobs all run out.”
One might mistakenly think that an artist who has long battled clinical depression — as DeSoto has — would not possess the stamina needed to document and champion the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. On the contrary, DeSoto explains that his own depression and years of therapy have fortified him with greater empathy and an ability to establish a deeper connection with the homeless. And his own predilection to addictive behaviors and inefficient coping mechanisms, and his subsequent success with a Twelve Step program, have provided him a keener understanding of those struggling with addiction.
Reared in the Southern Baptist Church, DeSoto almost went into the ministry at age 19, choosing instead to demonstrate his faith and works with photography. And while he continues to navigate life’s trials with a less conservative reading of Christianity, his practical application of metaphysical truth and mystery is a syncretic and fluid process that now draws on Soka Gakkai Buddhism, Reiki, and a study of Native American spirituality. With these and other therapeutic tools that help to validate his intuition, DeSoto has been re-interpreting his childhood through the lens of PTSD. “My father was wounded in World War II and suffered from traumatic stress,” he explains. “His rages led to a number of breakdowns and stays in VA psycho wards. And, of course, that leaves an impression — and scars — on a kid.”
It also amped up his compassion for others faced with difficult paths. Surprisingly, it was that very big-heartedness that caused DeSoto problems with his newspaper bosses. “They felt like I over-worked my stories, shot too many images,” he remembers. “One even lectured me that ‘those poor people’ weren’t paying my salary.”
The photographer became particularly close to two members of Houston’s homeless population, Judy Pruitt and Ben White, and documented their stories over decades. DeSoto met Pruitt just before Christmas in 1988, photographing her as she panhandled at a Houston intersection near a freeway overpass where she was living with hundreds of other homeless people. At the time, she was a runaway from a Texas Youth Commission juvenile detention center, where she’d been sent at age 11 for acting out in response to a childhood of trauma, abuse, and neglect.
Pruitt escaped from state custody three times, and each time when she was caught and returned it was discovered that she was pregnant. The TYC was later implicated in stories of widespread sexual abuse of teenagers in the agency’s care. “When she was on the streets,” DeSoto recalls, “Judy became known as Snow for her fair skin and innocent look. She was one of about 1,000 street kids who lived on Westheimer in the Montrose. Like most of them, she had to resort to street hustling to survive.”
Through the years, as his friendship with Pruitt grew, DeSoto photographed her holding her newborn child, with friends in her own apartment, then holding an eviction notice, appearing in court, in the Harris County Jail, and working the streets. In one image, she sits outside a courtroom, weary and forlorn, after losing her daughter to the Texas Youth Commission. Converted by missionaries who had seen DeSoto’s Chronicle stories about her life, for a time Pruitt became active as a homeless street preacher. In his last image of her, taken in 2008, she was living “week to week” and operating her Vision of Hope Ministry. At present, DeSoto believes Pruitt is back in the Texas Department of Corrections.
Ben White grew up in Houston’s Fourth and Fifth Wards, and like Judy Pruitt, survived a rough childhood. White’s mother, who suffered from an unspecified mental illness, died from ad-hoc abortion medication when White was three years old. “He was raised by a great aunt,” DeSoto recalls, “who would tie him to a tree and whip him, or leave him bound outside in the elements for hours. The treatment was disturbingly reminiscent of mistreatment inflicted on his slave ancestors.”
Discharged from the Army after a fellow soldier stabbed him, White fell into the same cycle of homelessness, crime, and incarceration that plagued Judy Pruitt. After testing positive for HIV in prison, White’s neck was broken by a falling tree on a work detail. “It was four years before he received medical attention for the injury,” adds DeSoto.
DeSoto photographed White in a homeless squatter’s warehouse with a view of Houston’s skyline, kissing his mother good-bye in a gravesite ceremony, being frisked and sitting in prison, sleeping in Houston’s Tranquility Park, preparing for the day at a Montrose homeless encampment, tending his mother’s grave while on a day pass from a halfway house, and receiving counseling from a physician with Healthcare for the Homeless. “A 2004 report,” adds DeSoto on the final image, “linked the reduction of recidivism among county jail inmates with primary care, mental health counseling, and intensive case management.” Ben White died in 2016.
One of DeSoto’s images shows White standing by images of himself installed in a Houston gallery. DeSoto’s work has been exhibited at Redbud Gallery, the CAMH, Houston Center for Photography, the Menil Collection, and elsewhere. A 2008 exhibition, Understanding Poverty, at DiverseWorks, led to work on Quiet Storms of Reform, a still-in-progress documentary film project on homelessness in the richest nation on earth. If our politicians and lawmakers addressed the issue with the same clarity, charisma and forthright eloquence that DeSoto exhibits in the 2016 six-minute trailer, we could make some progress in dealing with this difficult issue. The film’s website also includes a 70-minute “rough assembly” edited by Rice University, though DeSoto told me that the Southwest Alternate Media Project found that cut to be “a little too sad.” DeSoto and his collaborators are currently seeking funding to finish the film with the Utah Film Center as their fiscal agent.
“I was assigned to do a story on the Star of Hope homeless shelter as a young photojournalist,” he explains. “It was like stepping back in time because it reminded me of a book published in 1890 that MFAH curator Anne Tucker had recommended when I was in college, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. (She was very influential in my photographic education.) Since that time I’ve learned that too many of our policies are focused on determining which poor people are deserving of help and which are undeserving. That’s a poisonous mindset. When people are in trauma, and they’re on the streets or about to be on the streets, they need help. And unfortunately, the demand outweighs the supply. Our film can highlight the best practices and creative solutions — that’s better than mere muckraking. When people have information, they can make informed decisions, and public opinion can impact public policy.”
Not long after shooting that trailer, DeSoto began experiencing symptoms of disorientation that were eventually diagnosed as early-onset dementia. To combat the disease he is taking B12, writing in his journal, and adhering to a regimen he calls “the five fingers of health”: eat well, sleep well, socialize, exercise, and reduce stress. And despite that challenge he remains positive and open to new adventures and challenges. In late August, he was preparing to teach photography in the Navajo Nation. (He began teaching in Houston in 1988, and today he teaches a hybrid of analog and digital technologies, and even shows students how to build their own cameras.) It’s likely that the Navajo will recognize a brother in DeSoto. “I got my middle name, Tecumseh, from my father, who was a full-blooded Native American. We’re not certain which tribe, but we have a birth certificate that shows he was born near the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation in East Texas.”
Though DeSoto doesn’t make as many photographic images these days, when he does so he does it as “a form of prayer.” When we spoke in early September he was looking forward to seeing the results of some 300 rolls of film shot in Freedman’s Town/Allen Parkway Village in the early 1990s. “Students are about to work with the African-American Library at the Gregory School in Houston to do the ultimate before-and-after shots and stories,” he related. “Answered prayers!” He was also reading a book that he’d found among the Navajo in New Mexico, God’s Red Son — The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America, by Louis S. Warren. “Ever encounter a book that you knew would change your life?” he asked. “I have!”