past and present tense by stephen voss



The photograph is printed small, the size of a playing card ripped in half. A muddy monochromatic image of a tent covered in a tarp, set in a parking lot that regularly floods when it rains.

Some time before, I had walked tentatively into the newspaper’s offices as the staff sat around a wooden table eating donated vegan food. I carried a small stack of framed and matted black and white photographs I had printed myself. I don’t remember, all these years later, if they called me the next day, the next week or the next month. But at some point, I found myself in that flooded parking lot, in a part of the country where it stays gray and wet for months at a time, timidly picking my way around discarded clothing and friendly stray cats.

When I try to think about what I knew then versus what I know now, as an exercise in mapping my path to how I approach my work, I come up wanting. The stories we tell smooth out the tumult, glide past the quiet moments of doubt and draw straight lines between points when a meandering scrawl would be closer to truth.

In DC, they cleared out the homeless encampment on Valentine’s Day. The tents sat across from the Potomac River, just down the road from the Watergate Hotel. Now, an eight foot fence topped with barbed wire surrounds the acre of grass that has grown wild with weeds from the weeks of rain.

Photo: Dignity Village - Portland, Oregon

Stephen Voss