After a decade and a half working in group homes, it was photography that put Jerry Cordeiro’s life in focus.
For about four years, Cordeiro has been walking Edmonton’s inner city with a camera strapped to his neck and his heart worn on his sleeve.
He’s the founder of Humans of Edmonton Experience, a blog that tells the stories of Edmontonians struggling with life on the street. His project documents stories of homelessness, addiction, mental health challenges and more, and displays them throughout the city as part of various events.
“I draw into the people who are less fortunate, people who don’t have a voice,” Cordeiro said. “That’s just where I feel more comfortable.”
Prior to starting Humans of Edmonton Experience, Cordeiro said he was anything but comfortable. He felt unfulfilled, was battling addictions and “spiralling out of control.” Portrait photography became his passion.
“I was kind of lost a little bit with my previous career,” Cordeiro recalled. “And as soon as I started taking photos, that seemed to be my path.… It actually probably saved my life.”
Cordeiro’s ability to connect with people from all walks of life partly stems from his own experiences — in addition to having faced drug and alcohol addiction, he also grew up in a household rife with poverty and abuse.
In his prior life working in a group home, he also dealt extensively with adults with disabilities and mental health challenges.
“Mental health is very close to me. And if it’s close to me, that’s what I’m comfortable photographing — I don’t mind crouching down and talking with someone who’s talking to themselves,” he said.
Cordeiro modelled his project on Humans of New York, and estimates he’s snapped nearly 8,000 photos since it started. He now works with a full team to keep the blog maintained, which has more than 15,000 likes on Facebook.
He’s always cautious of coming across as exploitative or insensitive to people’s plights.
“When you walk around with a camera hanging from your hip and someone’s crouched behind a dumpster, they’re pretty skeptical,” he acknowledged. “You have to show them respect.”
Stories that stick
Every photo Cordeiro takes leaves an impact on him. But it’s the impact his photography has had on others that keeps him going.
He has heard from people such as a woman who didn’t even know her brother was still alive until she saw his photo.
“He was on the streets right in their own neighbourhood, for years, hidden behind the mask of a beard,” Cordeiro said.
There was the story of Joy Zylstra, a burn survivor whose face was severely scarred when she was the victim of a propane explosion as a child. Her website “Scarred, Not Broken” prompted Cordeiro to share her story as part of Humans of Edmonton Experience.
But the story that sticks with Cordeiro the most is when he encountered a large, lumbering homeless man in an alley. He asked if he could take his photo and tell his story.
Her later found out the man was Danny John Lindstrom, who boxed under the name Danny Stonewalker in the 1990s. Lindstrom had a storied boxing career that took him across Canada, the United States and Argentina.
“He was just an ordinary guy in an alley, down and out, you don’t know his story … and I find out that he’s a seven-time world champion,” Cordeiro said.
Not long after he posted the photos of Lindstrom, Cordeiro said a woman who identified herself as Lindstrom’s daughter said she had lost touch with him for more than 10 years. They later reconnected.
“When you take a picture and that happens … those are the stories that are really important to me,” Cordeiro said.
He’s currently working on a second instalment of the “Inside Out” project, so keep your eyes peeled for Cordeiro’s portraits popping up in the city. He’s also working on a coffee table book to be released in 2018.
Regardless of where his photos end up, Cordeiro said he’s committed to telling stories from the street for the near future.
“I just think it’s very important for people stuck in their ways, and children especially … to have that sense that we’re all humans.”
This story was originally published in Metro Edmonton.