I gave them no permission


root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Very low income disabled woman depicted in Chronicle story did not give her consent to be photographed.

by Laurie McElroy/PoorNewsNetwork

Theresa Hamilton’s photograph appeared in the November 4th, 2001 edition of the Sunday Chronicle, in the back of the "A" sheaf, at the bottom of a section titled, ‘Squalor In The Streets’. In it, she seemed old, listless as a captive, rooted in a rented room whose bare walls lent her an air of futile aspiration, of waiting for nothing. She slumped on the bed fully dressed, slack - faced and bowed, leaning backwards into her spine as if the chore of sitting upright had simply become too tiresome to hold her interest. The woman in the picture looked drained and discarded, hollow as an empty beer can; but my guy Jason and I knew a different Theresa through the clinic we shared, at San Francisco General Hospital. After he saw the Chronicle picture, his outrage prompted him to suggest I interview her.

The next time we saw Theresa at the hospital, she graciously consented to speak to me, although she made it clear that she had been receiving a great deal of unwanted attention from the Chron pic. "I never told anyone they could put me in the paper," she said fiercely. We arranged to meet later, at the residence hotel in the Tenderloin where she lives.

The first thing I noticed was that her room, though small, was not sterile as it had looked in the Chronicle photo but warmly lamplit and neat, with smiling pictures of family and friends cheering the walls. Theresa was herself small, petite like a living doll, with the erect posture and curved neck of a music box ballerina. She had thin arched eyebrows and the shape of her face was a cross between an oval and a heart. Her straightened hair was drawn back very simply into a braid. She offered me a seat on the bed, and then herself sat.

"So how did the photo come about? Can you tell me what happened?" I asked.

"Well, as you can see from that picture I was asleep, I had just come home from the hospital, my coat was still on, my keys were in my hand... I had no apparent knowledge that they were in my room taking pictures of me. I gave them no permission." Her clipped tone softened a very little. "If they had offered me papers, I probably would have signed them, but they didn’t, and I wish they would’ve gotten my consent because, as it is, I feel like my privacy has been invaded, and I really didn’t appreciate that. I do feel like my privacy has been invaded because, everybody looks different when they sleep and, this is just not me." We both glanced at the Sunday paper picture again, Theresa rather dismissively. She had a point -- the lady in the photo looked squat and worn, with deep lines scored across her forehead and around her toothless mouth like uneven parenthesis. The Ms. Hampton before me was vital, no more than a cursory resemblance to the ashen other.

"Did the reporters identify themselves to you as from the Chronicle?"

She shook her head in vehement negative. "There was just one person, his name was Chris and that was the only guy I ever talked to ."

"So there weren’t two guys, a reporter and a photographer?" I wondered at that.

"No," she repeated. "I can tell you exactly how it went -- I got in the door, picked up the phone ‘cuz it was ringing when I came in , put the phone down, sat down on the bed and closed my eyes for a minute... you know how it is, I had just got back from the General and I was tired, and the medication I’m on makes me sleepy... " (among her other health issues that require prescriptions and regular doctors’ visits, Theresa is in treatment for heroin addiction on a methadone maintenance program at SFGH).

She paused for a long breath as if something had occured to her. Then, "You know... I remember the man introducing himself to me and I remember giving him the quotes , although I don’t know where that stuff about schizophrenia came from because I never said or ever suffered from that... but he never took any pictures of me, I’m sure of it... " then her eyes darkened. "The only way he could have taken that picture was out in the hallway," she said slowly, frowning, "before he came in. I guess I left the door open when I sat down, after I answered the phone... " All at once she gasped, and rolled her eyes to glare into mine as if come to an abrupt, distasteful conclusion. When I understood her suspicions, my mouth dropped open in a shock of disbelief; but she did not look away, and the half - spoken accusation, undaunted by the weight of my sudden incredulity, fluttered between us like a black - winged butterfly.

Sympathetic as I was to her story and her situation, this was surely too much... or was it? The idea that a professional writer on assignment for a major metropolitan newspaper would resort to sneaking a patently sensationalistic photo, that was sure to both embarass the subject and negatively bias any average reader, without even the nominal consent of the subject/victim? Was it more likely that this woman was still a practising drug addict, possibly insane, and had either consented to everything and forgotten about it, or had given some reporter too much access and was belatedly trying to recant the image of her truth... Or is it such a stretch to believe that Theresa Hampton’s picture was part of another carefully orchestrated hit piece on the victims of poverty? Tenderloin street people and poor residents are now targets of a maddeningly one - sided media assault (e.g. - the "Mess on Market" series) that strives to pin a face of evil, filth and hopelessness on us to whom that same media has consistently denied voice for so unforgivably long. Carnivorous slumlords, mean - spirited downtown associations and insatiably greedy developers, with the help of their lapdog, Duh Mayor and his Planning Commission lackeys, want to make the very existence of poor folk a "quality - of - life" infraction so they can redevelop our inner city homes, once designated and distained as slums and "containment areas", into Starbucks and parking lots, service areas for the well - to - do. This depends on being able to convince the majority of San Franciscans that Joe or Jane Next Doe who lives in that SRO building "down there" or who had the misfortune of losing his or her place due to the - paycheck - that - didn’t - cut - it (or whatever) is actually a hardened criminal/lazy wetback/whining beggar/flaming pervert, et cetera, ad infinitum, and absolutely deserves it, whatever "it" may be. Maybe in Theresa Hamilton’s case, the forces of evil have once again risen admirably to that task...

Ashamed of my conflicted feelings, I looked down at the page, and the story’s smudged byline caught my eye. "By Patrick Hodge, Chronicle Staff Writer," it said. ...Patrick Hodge...

The man who came to Theresa’s room had introduced himself as Chris, hadn’t he?

I have, since my talk with Theresa, come to this conclusion: writers and papers, people and newsmakers, lie for many different reasons. Given the bitter anti - poor sentiment that has gripped not just the San Francisco city government and mainstream media but print, broadcast, and governmental mouthpieces all across the country, I just can’t bring myself to blame all my suspicions about the motivations behind the Chronicle article, featuring that definite bad - side pic of Theresa Hampton, alone on her duplicitous intent , her supposed unreliability, or even her faulty memory. That would be as unfair as the damned picture... and too easy besides. Don’t you think?

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