“There is one thing a photograph must contain: the humanity of the moment.”
Charlie Gregory has certainly heeded the advice of Swiss photographer and documentary filmmaker Robert Frank.
Camera in hand and empathy flowing through his veins, his motivation has been, as he told The Examiner in February 2023, “to swing these people into having a heart,” a reference to you and me and anyone else who has seen the marginalized but remained blind to their full right to not only walk among us but live their lives on their terms.
So it is, through Gregory’s photographic essays, we have met Bongo Dave, Groundhog, The Shinny Man, One Legged Bill, Abby Red Scooter, Ottawa Bob, Quiet Ken, Big Joe Nap and The Drifter.
A self-described “watcher of folks who live on the edges of society,” Gregory has made it his selfless mission to be there for each of them and countless others – but his kindness extends well beyond the click of a camera shutter.
As the proprietor of Lumpy Bikes, Gregory habitually donates refurbished bicycles to the marginalized. But his compassion is much more up close and personal.
In the introduction to Dark Hallways Revisited and Other Lost Places In My Soul – the sequel to his 2012 published photo essay of the same name – Lynn Cummings writes “Stealthily, regularly, he checks the downtown neighbourhoods and gathering places of people who are homeless…sourcing medical and social assistance, providing rides and smokes, offering an ear for listening and a shoulder for leaning.”
But the essence of who Gregory is, and why it matters, can be found in his striking photographs. His documentation of those he has befriended brings us on a privileged journey where our eyes are opened as we stare into the eyes of his subjects. His accompanying insights speak to the soul of those his camera has frozen in time. The result is we see – really see – the homeless for who they are and always have been: people who, while lacking a home, are people all the same. Flesh and blood; dreams and hopes; interesting, quirky and full of life as they’ve experienced it.
The message of Gregory’s advocacy, both photographic and personal, is bogeymen are the stuff of fiction. Don’t dare avert your eyes. There’s nothing to be afraid of here. Never was. Never will be.
As one would guess, Gregory hasn’t come to this place at this time by accident.
In a 2018 interview with Peterborough This Week, Gregory revealed that there was no authority figure in his life after age 12, his widowed mother struggling to raise six children.
Showing “great signs of being a rascal at a very young age,” he was bailed out of the drunk tank six consecutive weekends when he was 16. Later, in the 1970s, his selling of recreational drugs brought a 13-month sentence at the Ontario Reformatory in Guelph. This sentence had a twofold effect in that it prevented him from further using soft and hard drugs, as well as introducing him to working in the prison school as both the secretary, and as a teacher with his own hand-chosen pupils, hardened by difficult lives at home. After his marijuana grow operation for those suffering various maladies both physical and mental, was raided in Peterborough’s south end in April 2008, he was sentenced to a 45-day stay at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay.
Released early and ordered to complete his sentence by working weekends at the Youth Emergency Shelter (YES) on Brock Street, Gregory was a witness to prostitution, overt drug activity and copious consumption of alcohol in the shelter’s vicinity – a firsthand experience that was an epiphany of sorts as he saw “the underbelly of Peterborough like I had never seen it before.”
Out many thousands of dollars because of his legal troubles but blessed with a family and a roof over their head, Gregory determined, then and there, to help people who “had nothing.” The following summer, he found, refurbished and donated no fewer than 74 bicycles to those in need. Lumpy Bikes is a byproduct of that experience, as is the name which satirizes the bikes he donates.
When all is said and done, Gregory’s striking photographs and from-the-heart stories put a face to the faceless, and give meaning to lives that indeed matter. He asks nothing of those who view his images and read his words, other than perhaps some long overdue reflection on ‘There but for the grace of God, go I’ and the love for others which often flows from that.
Many of those depicted in Gregory’s book have died since they were photographed – but the road to anonymity they were on has been lit by the photographic proof of their having been here with us.
“My job is to share the information I have on these people,” Gregory told This Week, adding “I don’t know why I do it but I think somewhere in there I say ‘This person needs a friend.’ So, I end up being their friend.”
And we end up being in a much better place as a result.