Asheville Photographer Shares Her Gifts with the Homeless

Asheville photographer Maureen Simon shoots subjects most in her profession would shy away from, local homeless individuals.

On Wednesdays, she volunteers at the Haywood Street Congregation in West Asheville, a local church hosting a variety of outreach programs to local homeless individuals. Simon serves lunch, helps with clothing distribution and lends a hand where needed. She also takes pictures of the homeless individuals attending the programs.

Simon was introduced to Haywood Street Congregation by a friend who had received help there. “I was uncomfortable at first, so I assumed they would be too,” she said. “I didn’t want them to feel like some kind of oddity. I was offering a service and wanted to earn their trust.” Simon asks permission before she takes any photos, but has found most people she approaches are interested and willing to have their image captured.

“We all have pictures of our family and friends in our homes and on our phones, but this population does not,” she said.

A week after she takes the pictures, she returns with prints and spreads them out on a table to be picked up.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of interest, but people just stood and looked at them,” she said.

By the end of the morning, the photos were gone.

Sometimes the photos are sent to moms, friends, siblings, and children of those who attend the Wednesday Haywood Street Congregation programs. Other times, they are kept in the individual’s backpack for safekeeping. Simon has touched the lives of a population that is often invisible in society.

“Some cultures believe that taking a photograph robs an individual of his soul,” she said. “I’d like to think by offering the homeless a photo of themselves, I’m giving them a piece of their soul back.”

Simon has had her share of emotional encounters. She photographed two brothers from the Ukraine whom she described as ‘inseparable.’ When it came time to bring back the prints, she found out one of the brothers had died, leaving the other with nothing to remember him by but a photograph taken by Simon.

Simon came into her profession only recently. In 2005, she was laid off at work and both her mother and sister died.

“I was drowning in shame and grief,” she said. Her son gave her a camera at that time, but it stayed in Simon’s closet. “Through luck or grace, I decided to say ‘yes’ to the things that scared me.” That was a turning point in her life.

Simon began taking photography classes, studying with local photographer Tony Hood. She shot pictures all around Asheville. Expanding her horizons, she traveled by herself to Charleston, Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, honing her skills in those cities. In 2014 and 2015, she went to New Orleans to learn more about Hurricane Katrina as part of an exhibit she was presenting at UNCA.

Simon has shot hundreds of photos since coming to Haywood Street Congregation. In addition to prints given personally to individuals, some are used, with permission, in exhibits including one in Jubilee Community Church. One of the men from Haywood Street Congregation came to the opening of the exhibit.

“When he saw the photos on display he began to cry. When asked why, he said, ‘those are my friends,’” Simon said.

While Simon’s photos have been exhibited in a variety of venues as far away as Buffalo, New York, she still plans on working at Haywood Street Congregation as long as she can. She describes her work there as “a privilege and a joy.” She continues to take classes at the AB Tech Small Business Center, hoping one day to have a studio of her own.

“My intention is to continue to develop my skill, travel, meet other artists, have fun and share my gifts,” she said.