Freelance Photographer, Ilona Berzups, had been spending time at Tent City 3, one of three Seattle area homeless encampments. Ilona said, “I’m a photographer and my storytelling tool is my camera. I have a deep interest in humanizing those who are beaten down and marginalized in society, a deep interest in re-sensitizing people to their less fortunate neighbors by making it personal.”
Matt had been homeless for much of his adult life and living in a tent at this camp for the past three. Although Ilona had been visually documenting the camp and getting to know the residents for about a year, she had never talked to Matt. She noticed the scaring on Matt’s body and face, in which she and many others often assume was the result of being burned. Ilona admitted, “I wanted to meet this man but for weeks I struggled with my apprehension at facing Matt’s disfigurement, experiencing incredible guilt for being so weak towards another human being. I choke up thinking about it.”
Finally, she was introduced by another resident and friend of Matt’s, Miss Merrita. “When I met Matt what surprised me the most was how all my preconceived notions and fears immediately melted away. He was just a pleasure to talk to – interesting, articulate, sincere – and then I saw Matt ‘the man,’ not the homeless man or the disfigured man – just this amazingly resilient human being” Ilona described.
It turns out that Matt had never been in a fire at all. In fact, he has actually lived with 11 types of cancers since he was just two years old. One of the cancers is called, basal cell nevus syndrome, a genetic form of cancer passed down through his family for six generations. Matt lives in constant pain and has had over 1,700 surgeries, all of which have left many scars.
In addition to a very long battle with illness and homelessness, Matt has also endured a discrimination that most cannot fathom. Not only do people stare, but they also scatter on the bus and he has even been called a monster. After this kind of treatment, a person may assume Matt would be an angry man; yet, those who know him, call him very special, loyal and loving friend.
In one of their meetings, Matt told Ilona, “I want to change the way people see the less fortunate, homeless, disabled, however they want to call or name them, we are all human beings and all have rights to certain things in this life.”
Ilona quickly decided she wanted to create a photo essay to capture the many facets of Matt’s life. Ilona explained, “Matt’s journey has been incredibly hard and still inspirational. I’ve been able to capture a part of his journey visually and my hope is that it be received with the sensitivity and care it deserves.” Ilona added, “My desire is that his visual story will make others examine how they see and (consciously or unconsciously) treat those who are different.”
The essay was just released on November 14th and is titled, Walking with Giant – One man’s battle with homelessness and debilitating illness.
Matt was a Special Guest at the Invisible Disabilities Association’s 2011 Honor Awards Banquet. He shared a bit of his journey, which brought the audience to their feet! Matt’s story is inspirational and will change your life and your mind about judging others, before taking the time to get to know them. Read full story and watch his video.
Photo for this article copyright Ilona Berzups, used by permission.
A Lifelong Journey with IDA Special Guest, Matt Barrett (Article and Video)
Ilona’s Photo Essay (now available in print), Walking with Giant – One man’s battle with homelessness and debilitating illness.
Order Matt Barrett’s Poetry Book, A View from the Street
Matt Barrett’s Website, A View from the Street
Matt at the 2011 Invisible Disabilities Association Awards Banquet