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Monday, Nov 19, 2018
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To understand homeless people, Tampa photographer spent 18 months meeting with them

TAMPA - On Jim's arm was a tattoo of a hinge with screw holes indicating where the recovering addict used to inject heroin.

Fernando liked to belt out songs he wrote about a love he lost when he fled from Cuba.

Timothy had a dog he refused to give up so he slept with the animal in the streets rather than alone in a shelter.

Each is among hundreds of homeless people who changed the outlook of Tampa photographer Renato Rampolla.

Now, they are part of a photo book titled Dignity No Matter What that Rampolla has published to change the outlook of others.

"Like many, I used to think the homeless needed to get a job, responsibility and gray hair like the rest of us," said Rampolla, 58. "I learned those people could have been me. It could be me."

Over a period of 18 months, he photographed and spoke with homeless people in Memphis, Boston, New York City, Chicago, New Orleans and the Tampa Bay area.

He learned laziness is not always the issue. Addiction, mental health and heartbreak are factors too.

"Some just gave up on life," he said. "I don't judge. I don't know how I'd react if I lost a daughter. I don't know how strong I'd be."

Any effort to humanize the plight of homeless people is welcome news to Justin LaRosa, a minister with Park United Methodist, operator of the Portico Cafe coffee shop downtown where all proceeds support the church's homeless ministry.

People don't take the time to see homeless people what they are, LaRosa said - people.

"Telling stories and understanding what people have gone through, where they come from, is a great wall destroyer."The book focuses on around 40 of the homeless people Rampolla met.

Some people are featured in one photo, some in more. Subjects are nameless or identified only by their first names.Rampolla wrote a short story about his experience with each one. Faces were shot up close for a better look at "their humanity."

One homeless man told him, "You don't know what loneliness is until you're sleeping outside by yourself."Heartbroken after meeting a woman living in the woods who said she was dying of cancer, Rampolla put down the camera for months.

"The story was just so sad."

Rampolla's father was the late Frank Rampolla, a renowned artist who taught at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. His late mother Doris Rampolla worked with abused children as a therapist. She had a soft spot for the downtrodden.

As a child, Rampolla inherited his father's love for the arts. But it wasn't until recently that he understood his mother's compassion for homeless people.

"She'd give them a dollar and I'd ask her why she would do that," Rampolla said.

After a decades-long hiatus from serious photography, Rampolla decided to give it another shot a little less than two years ago. While on his way to Ybor City to seek subjects, Rampolla saw the man he'd come to know as Timothy, in the company of his dog, under Interstate 4 near the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

"He looked like Jesus to me," Rampolla said. "I thought that would be a pretty cool picture, so I pulled over."

Rampolla said he gave the man a cold bottle of water, sat with him and made small talk that evolved into a conversation about living on the street. Once the man was comfortable, Rampolla asked to photograph him.

Rampolla tracked Timothy down a week later to share the photos and learned Timothy also suffered from alcoholism.Hillsborough County alone could have provided Rampolla plenty of subjects.

The Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Initiative estiamtes that 1,795 persons have experienced homelessness during 2018.In each city he visited, Rampolla brought the same approach to subjects. He'd offer them food, water, sometimes socks, then sit down and chat.

"What they liked the most is we talked like they were normal people," Rampolla said, "because they are normal."

The book is available at RenatoRampolla.com. Proceeds will be donated to charities that battle homelessness, Rampolla said.

"There is a problem out there," he said. "This is just my little part. I'm just trying to raise awareness."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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