Before I describe my encounter with Willis Earl Beal, let me explain what led me to approach him in the first place.
A few years ago I took a photo of a homeless man in Mobile, Alabama. After processing the image I realized the portrait had captured something special about the man. That got me thinking about taking more photos of people I see on the streets. Before long I was stopping people who I thought looked interesting and asking if I could take their portrait.
Some of the people I photographed were homeless and I paid them for their time, usually about 5 bucks for what was usually less than a minute of their time. With some of the people I photographed I took a little more time to get to know a little about them, but my goal was always to see if I could capture something about a person without having to know anything about them.
The photo featured here is of "outsider" musician Willis Earl Beal. Mr. Beal was in Boise for the annual Treefort Music Fest, which attracts dozens of bands from around the country. I saw him sitting in a parking lot near the main stage of the festival. He was eating a sandwich, but that did not prevent me from screwing up my nerve and walking up to him to ask if I could take his portrait. I only talked to him briefly and I had never heard of him before our encounter. I mentioned to him that I really enjoy taking photos of people who I find interesting, and a lot of those people happen to be homeless. He told me he used to be homeless. He also said he was flying to Europe in the next couple of days on tour (some of the articles about him highlight the fact that he was signed by the same recording company as Adele).
It turns out Willis Earl Beal had gone from being homeless to being pretty well celebrated in artistic circles. This 2013 profile of him is one of the better attempts to figure out a man who defies labels and even explanation.
Below are a few of the street portraits I've taken over the last few years.