Sometimes even the simplest picture tells a deeper story. In this case, one about the life of Luis Muñiz, an elderly Uruguayan man living in a homeless shelter. In this moving account, Factor S editor Fernando Vidal explains what he did to get the perfect shot.
It took three weeks to get the shot, not counting Saturdays and Sundays. Every day during those three weeks I would stay there for as long as possible during my breaks; I would take aim, trying to find the ideal stance, the perfect lighting, the right moment. It could only be in the early morning because the afternoon just wasn’t the same, in the afternoon there was a different atmosphere. The image I had seen not long before had evoked a feeling in me that I couldn’t define; I felt compelled to not let it escape, and to capture it. The subject was indifferent to the presence of the photographer in those moments, it was better that way, better than when the prey is aware of the hunter. So, we both remained still in our chosen places. The only witness to this moment was the huge window that opened out onto the street which was, unknowingly, as central to the scene as Muñiz himself.
The room was right in the middle of the corridor, it was impossible to enter or leave the building without passing by and looking in. Muñiz slept next to the window in the second bedroom, along with six other people. To make the best use of the space, the beds in the room were arranged in a certain way: two in the middle; then one next to the wall on the left; and the fourth bed was at the bottom of that bed, forming an L-shape. On the right-hand side were the last two beds, also forming an ‘L’. The two in the middle were meant to be bunk beds but their temporary owners couldn’t use them like that, so they were laid out separately instead.
All the beds were old, damaged, shabby, broken – all donated by people who thought that they were no longer useful. Some had broken slats, or no slats at all, and the frames of other beds (those in the best condition) had come loose; just sitting down on one of these beds would make them sink in the middle, like laying back in a hammock. It just so happened that the people sleeping in these beds were also old, worn-out, shabby, and in many cases, broken.
In Uruguay, people who live on the streets move around a lot, which makes it difficult to know exactly how many homeless people there are. The last census reported that there are 1,200 homeless people using night shelters or 24-hour refuges. The majority of them are men aged between 30 and 50.
Muñiz slept in the middle of the room, in the bed next to the window. The beds are sometimes allocated at random, and sometimes according to people’s needs. Luis’ (Muñiz’s first name is Luis) health was as weak as his bed, propped up by medication and treatments that he often didn’t have or didn’t care for. COPD is an illness affecting the lungs and, in Luis’ case, was chronic. He had an inhaler to give himself doses of Salbutamol and Ipratropium, medications which helped him to breathe more easily. Sleeping by the window was also good for his lungs. Under his bed he kept a wooden frame covered by two thick blankets, which acted as a kind of headboard, as sleeping propped upright also aided his breathing. He had been a baker. An occupation that obliges anyone in this line of work to adopt a habit that lasts long past working life and well into retirement. The difference in his sleeping pattern – waking up at four in the morning and turning in at seven in the evening – was something that infuriated his fellow residents, but this did not affect the routine of the now-retired master baker. Ingratiating himself with the other residents or the staff at the shelter did not interest him. In fact, he seemed to enjoy being a nuisance.
There were clear instructions on the back of the packet of dried milk about how to prepare this staple resource in the correct way: add 100 grams (about ten tablespoons) of dried milk to half a litre of warm water, cooled from boiling. Stir well and add more warm water until you reach one litre. Tea was far easier, one simply had to place the teabag into boiling water, and there you had it. Arranging the biscuits on the trays was also a straightforward task.
At eight in the morning, breakfast was served. Sometimes it was late, but never by more than half an hour, as this schedule ensured that no one took medication on an empty stomach. Breakfast consisted of two jugs of milk, one flask of tea, biscuits and sweet cakes. It was the morning session of a ritual that was repeated later on in the afternoon. Like any ritual or ceremony, every step of the process had its own time and place. At that time of the morning, the kitchen was only occupied by the person responsible for preparing the breakfast that day, and for as long as the ritual lasted, that individual held a kind of power over everyone else.
Luis didn’t get involved in these activities, they didn’t concern him. He had his own routine. He took his breakfast in his bed, even though it was against the rules, with food that he kept hidden in his bag, even though that was also against the rules. Luis spoke little and would grumble if he was spoken to. He rarely left his spot, sat in the middle of his bed, gazing out of the window. No one moved him from there or tried to convince him to move, except a few of the shelter’s community workers whose relentless attempts to make him go for a walk, or build some kind of link with those around him, all fell on deaf ears. He had a daughter but their relationship was as fragile and damaged as his lungs. They spoke on the phone every now and again and they rarely saw each other, and as much as Muñiz tried to hide it, it hurt him. I once asked him what had caused them to grow apart, and without shifting his gaze from outside he said, “To be honest I can’t even remember, it was probably something silly.” The truth was that it no longer mattered how it started.
During my third week there I finally managed to capture the image I had sought, and I was happy. That same day there was a celebration of some sort at the shelter, I can’t remember what for, but Muñiz was in the kitchen telling another resident about how to make really great bread. From the snippets I could hear, his secret was to let it rise, then leave it be, knead it and then leave it again as if it had been forgotten about, but always keeping an eye on it. After a while, you had to go and knead it again, giving it the desired shape, and then leave it again, letting it rise in its new shape but with the same soul. It wasn’t often that I saw him smile, and this was one of those rare moments. I seized the opportunity and took a photo, surprising him. “I can’t remember the last time I saw myself smile – make me a copy of that photo so I can keep it.” I showed him the other photo, the one that had taken me three weeks to get, but he didn’t like it.
“Is that me? When did you take that?” he asked.
“I could have taken that photograph any time, you sit like that for hours every day.”
It was strange that he immediately recognised himself smiling, but didn’t recognise himself in the way that was normal for everyone else. It had been a long time since he had seen himself smile, but he seemed to recognise that expression that was so distant and unrecognisable for all of us who saw him every day. Just as bread changes shape but has the same soul, so did Luis. Luis was still that person who was accustomed to smiling, although he concealed it very well.
I never got the chance to give him a copy of that photo, time passes by differently for everyone. When I finally dropped by the shelter a few months later, he was no longer with us. One night, his shortness of breath overcame him and even though the ambulance arrived in good time, he didn’t make it through the night, and he passed away. It was impossible to walk down that corridor in the shelter without looking towards the window and picturing Luis sat there looking out, perhaps waiting for someone, someone he may have known, but we never will. That’s something that we will never find out. It’s a secret he took with him.
Translated from Spanish by Hannah Richardson
Courtesy of Factor S / INSP.ngo