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Aaron Draper: Shining a light on the area's homeless

Over the years Aaron Draper has developed a keen eye for detail and light and that skill has made him a sought after and well-regarded photographer, but it turns out his gift of gab is behind the project that proved to be his most ambitious and rewarding.

Draper is the creator of “Underexposed,” a photographic collection of the homeless community in the 209 and Bay Area.

“In photography the term ‘underexposed’ means the image is losing details in the shadows,” Draper said. “I felt like it was an appropriate description of the people I was photographing because their stories and backgrounds were getting lost in the shadows. These are the people that were falling into the shadows and only in the periphery of society.”

Draper used lighting to cast away the shadows from his subject and literally and figuratively put his subjects in a new light for the public.

“There have been other works of homeless individuals, but I noticed a lot of those use long lenses, and are photographed in black and white to show the grim and grit and really cast them as the downtrodden,” Draper said. “I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to cast a light on them and show them in a way that challenged people’s preconceived ideas of who the homeless really are.

“I discovered that when I used the lights on them, the harshness would fall away and the beauty would shine through. It was about celebrating them as people and I took the same approach that I would with any other commercial project,” Draper added.

Draper is currently a professor of photography at California State University, Chico and is a freelance photographer based out of San Francisco. His professional career began in Modesto and that was where the project first came to life.

The project began about five years ago in Modesto, when Draper found himself in need of a break from a rather difficult client. He was driving around 9th Street when he spotted a face that drew him in.

Always a loquacious fellow, Draper had no hesitation in pulling over and starting up a conversation with the man, who Draper would learn was named Leon and was a shrimper originally from the Louisiana area.

“He had a great smile and a great story,” Draaper said. “I then just asked if I could photograph him and he said yes. From there I started driving around and talking to some of the homeless individuals I would meet. It felt in some ways I was answering a question that society wanted to know as to who these people were and what were their circumstances.”

The project grew when Draper moved to San Francisco and started to meet more homeless individuals, all with a unique story to share.

“As long as there are homeless people, then the project will continue,” Draper said. “I will keep working to tell their stories.”

Draper was very conscious of not taking advantage of his subjects, so he treated each one like a model. They were paid a $1 per minute and signed a photo release.

“For many of them it was a different level of respect afforded to them and helped them feel good about posing for the photographs.”

For some of his subjects it had been a long time since they had seen themselves in a photograph and the outcome was something that caught them by surprise, but in a good way.

“They liked how they looked and how the light shone on them,” Draper said. “These are some of my favorite photographs,” Draper said. “I love the texture in them and how that helps tell their stories.”