On his elite SWAT team, Dennis Kelley always took the point position, the most dangerous place to be when a door was breached. He was first to charge in on major drug busts and violent felon takedowns. Kelley was a cop’s cop. He was quiet, focused, reserved, no-nonsense. He still is.
The worst part of Kelley’s job wasn’t the danger, or even the mind-numbing paperwork. He most hated dealing with “street people”: the homeless, the destitute, the mentally ill.
“I felt that anyone on the streets was there by choice and deserved it. They were dirty, smelly, they soiled my patrol car and made my day miserable,” Kelley said. “I didn’t need their sob stories. I just told them to shut up.
“Just about every cop climbs into himself, away from family, friends, and society after five years on the job,” explained Kelley, who retired last year after more than 20 years in law enforcement. “It’s an unseen plague that eats up cops. I didn’t need some homeless guy getting inside my head. Street people were my problem only until I could make them someone else’s problem – which couldn’t be fast enough.”
Compounding his irritation was that Kelley, who didn’t like homeless people to begin with, worked as a police officer in a city that largely didn’t like the desperate: Alamo Heights. He often found himself explaining to residents or business owners that he couldn’t arrest a person just for standing on a public sidewalk or street or sitting for hours on a bus stop.
“Most times, the only way a cop can get them off the streets or out of a patrol car is to look for some legal way to make that person into a criminal,” Kelley said. “Then a cop can drop them off at jail and get back to the job.”
Kelley, 44, carried his attitudes about these unfortunates into retirement. “I never even looked at street people, much less gave them money or food,” he said. “I chewed out friends and family for giving stuff to street people.”
Seeing Humanity In People On The Streets
That changed one day when Kelley was downtown eating at the Mexican Manhattan restaurant.
“I don’t know why, but I went up and talked to a homeless guy on the sidewalk,” Kelley said. “He didn’t ask me for anything. He didn’t want anything. I asked him how he was doing, then went into the restaurant. I thought about him while I ate. When I came out he was still there so I talked to him. For the first time in my life, I saw pain in the face of a stranger.”
Kelly said his changing attitudes about people on the streets continued when he met a man named Larry leaning against the wall of an office building near the bus station.
“Larry told me he had been living with his mother when their house burned down,” Kelley said. “Two months later his mother died and he ended up on the street. I could see the anguish and the tiredness in his face. I asked him if I could come back in a couple of days to take his photograph.”
“Mama” was another person living on the streets who caught Kelley’s attention.
“When I first met Mama, she refused to be photographed, but I wanted to hear her story anyway. Mama had been a drug addict, rejected by her husband and children, [and she] ended up on the streets. I eventually got her photo,” Kelley said. “Whenever I’m downtown, I check on how Mama’s doing. She always on the same curb by a freeway – every day. I like talking to Mama.”
Last Thursday, Kelley spotted Andy, a paraplegic, near the Bexar County Jail. Andy told Kelley that he was a cattle wrangler at the Union stockyards near downtown in the 1960s.
Kelley kept a conversation going during the shoot. Andy said that when the yards closed, he drifted to Arkansas, where he got married. “But then my wife died, but no one would tell me what happened to her, so I came back here,” Andy said.
Healing Through Photography
Those encounters occurred when Kelley was coming into his own as a professional photographer – his second career. Kelley’s father had been a professional photographer for the National Weather Service, and Kelley took photography classes in college. Kelley says that while he was a cop, photography kept him from further descent into jaded cynicism and withdrawal.
Kelley believes he was healed as a person through his street photography. He’s not the first – and he won’t be the last.
“Photography heals three times,” writes Jan Phillips, author of God is at Eye Level: Photography as a Healing Art.
Phillips explains that the first healing occurs when a photographer must focus on the present and let go of both past and future. A second healing belongs to the person being photographed, the honored recipient of pure attention. The third healing takes place when viewing a photograph as an outside observer.
“The chance to see the world through another’s lens, to be transported to another time, another place, another reality, can heal and transform our own,” Phillips writes.
Everyone Has a Spirituality
Kelley acknowledges the profound change he has experienced. But asked if he thought the transformation was spiritual or religious, he said no.
“Yeah, photography changed me. The street people I despised saved me,” Kelley said.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, O.M.I., president of Oblate School of Theology here in San Antonio, would disagree with Kelley about lacking personal spirituality. In his book, The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality, Rolheiser writes that everyone has a spirituality, something that is not necessarily tied to religion.
“Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with our desire,” writes Rohlheiser, “what we do with our longings, our energy, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us – that is our spirituality. We all have a spirituality. We don’t have a choice.”
Kelley located both spirituality and healing through photography. A tough, ex-SWAT cop discovered he could recognize pain, hurt, and brokenness in strangers – and do so in a way he could share it with the world through photography. Kelley sees the world in new ways, with compassionate eyes that don’t look the other way.
Kelley wins national awards for his street photography. The Professional Photographers of America (PPA) named Kelley a gold medalist at Imaging USA 2017, when all four of his submissions received top honors. Two of the images were selected for the prestigious PPA LOAN Collection, which means international recognition. Earlier this month, the Texas Professional Photographers Association named Kelley one of the top 10 photographers in Texas.
Kelley’s San Antonio street photography project, “Starving For Pennies,” is online.