Photographer Jerry Tovo has spent the better part of the last 2 years pursuing a personal project around the USA called "They May Have Been Heroes." The project is dedicated to raising the Nation’s awareness to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of homeless Veterans, by photographing, videotaping and otherwise recording their stories. The photos and stories are both captivating and heartbreaking.
About Jerry Tovo
Jerry Tovo is a married 67-year-old photographer from the Heartland of America. A former Drill Sergeant from the Vietnam era with a minor military disability, Jerry has chosen to take on this incredible challenge.
When Jerry was 56, and already considered by many to be a world-class photographer, he seized the opportunity to spend seven years in the field working with some of the greatest photographers in the country as a representative for Kodak Professional. It was there he came to the realization that new digital technology was a perfect fit for the black and white imagery he has so readily embraced. During that time, Jerry found himself diving headlong into combining that new technology with the style of the old masters. He has since refined that combination into a new style that is perfectly tailored to this project.
After becoming aware of the numbers of homeless veterans in this country, it was obvious where Jerry needed to spend his energy. He fully expects that driving across the U.S. will take the better part of a year and has girded himself for the exhaustive travel. The Veterans Administration will be a tremendous help to Jerry in cutting through the mountain of logistics required to complete this monumental challenge.
At the culmination of this year Jerry expects there will be an extensive traveling Photo Exhibit and hopefully a matching ‘coffee-table book’ of his evocative images of homeless veterans. Maybe, just maybe, there will be thousands of other Americans who share his concerns as a result of this tribute.
Tell me about the project. How did this come about?
Several years ago, I decided to focus on digital Black and White photography. While working for Kodak Professional, I discovered the incredible amount of control one has in shooting B&W with digital cameras. Foregoing the Kodak emphasis on the color skin tone attributes of both film and digital, I opted instead to really dig into B&W. I quickly developed a niche in the portrait market, focusing on the senior generation and the patriarchs and matriarchs of families. As my professional work progressed, I looked for a personal project to augment my commercial endeavors. I became aware of, through the many media reports, of the issue of the hundreds of thousands of homeless Veterans on our streets, and decided that their needs deserved some visual recognition. It was a perfect marriage; my style was suited to the portraits of the gritty but dignified subjects and it gave me the opportunity to give something back. I was an Army Veteran and served as a Drill Instructor or Drill Sergeant during the Vietnam conflict. I had trained and sent off to combat so many young men who now were the subjects viewed through my lens.
How did you get into photography?
Photography was a bit of a fluke. My original intent was to become an architect. I was really unprepared to pursue that career and didn't attempt get into any of the good schools, so I followed a friend who was going to Southern Illinois University and joined him there. I took a few engineering courses but found that I had no strong proclivity for math. I changed my major to Marketing and took a photo class to supplement that curriculum. Once I saw that first print come up in the developer, I was hooked. I knew I had found my vocation.
What was the most challenging thing about this project?
Fund raising, frankly had I understood that it would consume so much of my time and mental energy; I might never have taken that first baby step. Even today, I find the prospect of covering the expenses needed to travel daunting.
What was your favorite part?
Of course, being on location working directly with the Veterans, shooting their portraits and then followed closely by the digital conversion process. It’s all about making the images worthy of the goals I have set and taking these images to a whole different level.
What do you hope comes of this project?
I want my work to make a difference. I want people to see it and stand up; actually more than just stand up, I want them to take action. These images must inspire people to join the movement, to embolden the private sector to join forces with the Veterans Administration and find a cure for homelessness among our forgotten warriors. I want people to take note that these men and women are human beings, not pets that need adoption or foster parents. The entire VA budget for Homeless Veterans is $333 million dollars compared to the $54 billion we spend on our pets. That's "B" vs. "M". I also want people to know these people are not bums and vagrants; to be viewed with disgust or pity, or worse, ignored altogether. I have become quite the evangelist for this cause.
What can be done better by the USA to prevent soldiers from becoming homeless?
Here are a couple of points. As a Drill Instructor, it was my job to take your brain from you, remove all of the civilian thoughts and ideas, and then reshape and remold it, before returning it to you, reprogrammed to perform in the Military way. If, before service men and women leave the service, they could spend time being de-briefed, re-educated on what to expect in civilian life, prepared for how others lives might have changed in your absence, some of these people may have been able to adjust to their reintroduction in society. As it is, the current canned debriefing tends to focus on brevity rather than the actual individual experiences; many of the veterans are unable to cope with those changes and many more are scarred from the combat experiences. No amount of decompression will help some of these veterans, at least not immediately.
We need to recognize that for many in the service, their experience in the military provides a direct link with the potential for substance abuse and addiction. It's no secret that alcohol is not frowned upon in the military. My subjects tell me that drink flows freely and, in so many cases, it's consumed to take the edge off and, in some cases, to hide from the realities of war.
How do people get involved and help out or raise awareness?
We are always looking for resourceful people. Our goal was, and still is, to have a Gala Opening in Washington DC, a location where the majority of people who wield power to move the country in one direction or another, reside. It is our expectation that the images will evoke not only an emotional reaction but stimulate real action by those who may not have ever been face to face with the reality of homelessness. The images compel the viewer to actually see the hopelessness and despair.
A secondary goal is have a traveling exhibit connected with the Smithsonian. We have had some very friendly discussions with officials from the Institution. We believe that we are lighting the fuse for an explosion of support. I can only hope that someone, with the same passion for these veterans as the Susan Komen family has for cancer treatment, would be inspired to bring our mission to fruition.
We need resourceful people willing to work on grants and grant opportunities, and fund raisers in general, as well as people able to research potential cities in which we can focus our efforts in order to complete the mission of traveling the entire country.
At this point we will embrace anyone willing to help with gallery/museum connections or contacts. Since the show in St Louis closed, there has been an outpouring of requests to place the existing show in other cities around the country. BTW, we had an official tally of 35,911 people who viewed the exhibit in a little over 6 months at the Missouri History Museum. That is no small number for us and I am so thrilled that the community has embraced our project.
Fundraising and funding are of the utmost importance if we expect to move forward toward our goals. I have funded much of this out of my own pocket but cannot continue on that path. It should be noted the 100% of the net proceeds would go to those veterans’ organizations that are aligned with our goals. Currently, we have a good relationship the US VETS organization, in particular the local Chapter in St Louis. There are other groups with similar ambitions that are in line to benefit from our efforts.
What's next for you?
I could use a nap but only in order to marshal the energy necessary to push forward and complete the shooting phase of the project. Hopefully, we can then turn our mental energy to placing the exhibit throughout the country in major municipalities and trusting the Smithsonian to administer to the smaller venues.
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