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November 3, 2011
Behind Lens, Vets Find Respite From Troubled Pasts

by Meredith Hoffman

The 50 or so people chatting and clinking wine glasses in the gallery in SoHo on Wednesday night did not distract Milton Douglas from fixating on his framed masterpiece, an explosion of orange light spraying up from the horizon: Coney Island at sunset.

“I wouldn’t believe I’d capture such a magnetizing piece of photography,” said Mr. Douglas, 58, who wore a suit and tie at the opening reception for an exhibition called the Veterans Photo Project. “It was totally mind blowing.”

Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Rafael Gomez at the Art Connects Spattered Columns Gallery in SoHo, where his photographs are being exhibited along with those of other formerly homeless veterans.
The only other object that was a testament to his accomplishments was back at his high school in Springfield Gardens, Queens — it was a soccer trophy.

Over the years, Mr. Douglas has served in the Army during the Vietnam War, attended technical school, worked a variety of jobs — and most recently, landed on the street, after losing his livelihood as a flower deliveryman. But now he has a new skill.

Mr. Douglas and seven other formerly homeless veterans have their photographs on display at Spattered Columns Gallery on Broadway, the culmination of a six-month class they took while living in a shelter in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And ever since they began their sessions, photography has become a much-needed respite from their troubled pasts.

“When you have a camera in your hands, it’s therapy,” said Aubrey Edwards, a professional photographer who taught the veterans using her own cameras for the class. Ms. Edwards, who found refuge in photography at the age of 6 after her mother died, has also led workshops for children in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and started a New Orleans class for homeless veterans. “You can step away from the daily things that are very difficult and create something beautiful, have this break, this rest.”

Casey Kelbaugh for The New York Times
Aubrey Edwards has been the veterans’ photography teacher.
Ms. Edwards taught bimonthly sessions in the Peter Jay Sharp Center, a 400-person shelter in East Williamsburg run by the Doe Fund. She would also take the residents twice a month to test their skills by taking photos in Chinatown, Prospect Park, Times Square and the Hudson Valley. Each trip corresponded with a class theme, like abstraction or landscape.

“Aubrey would always say, ‘Look up, look down, look all around,’ ” said Tom Popowich, who works for the Doe Fund’s Veterans Program and served as the driver for the photo-taking excursions. The three-year-old Veterans Program, which provides beds at the shelter and offers employment, training and counseling, was missing one thing — art — so Mr. Popowich solicited Ms. Edwards for the project.

The eight men were selected for the program, he said, based on their interest and on their compliance with rules like staying sober. Now five of the eight have moved out of the shelter and are living on their own.

“We can beat ourselves up thinking about what we did wrong,” one of the veterans, Rafael Gomez, 57, said about becoming homeless. Mr. Gomez, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War era, said that after separating from his wife recently he fell into drugs and depression. Last September, he moved into the shelter, where the rules helped him stabilize his life, Mr. Gomez said.

He found work as a part-time cabdriver and found an apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photography, he said, satisfies an even higher desire — spirituality.

“It helps you see within yourself that there is something beautiful,” he said, nodding toward a photo of his reflection in the snow. His largest image was of woven branches, splayed out and stretching to the photo’s edge.

The show will run until Nov. 30, with works on sale from $100 to $500.

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