Working With The Denver Voice

John Alexander PortraitRaelene Johnson PortraitDavid Gordon PortraitAnn Bitela PortraitPhoto by Jesse R. Borrell, NOCOASTVirginia Bryant Portrait

How do you describe the notion of Home?

A sense of home is something that ties us all together. It’s a basic, primal feeling that helps us feel safe in a world that can often feel chaotic.

The population of Denver, Colorado has an estimated population of 682,545 in 2018. I have lived close-by for the past 8 years, and am always concerned for the large groups of homeless folks living downtown near the Park Avenue shelters. Similar to Phoenix, Denver’s consistent sunshine and milder temperatures attract a continuous transient population. One day I met a man on a street corner selling a newspaper called The Denver VOICE. He explained how this newspaper was creating a freelance income stream that is helping him get back on his feet.

Photo by Jesse R. Borrell, NOCOAST

The Denver VOICE newspaper empowers social change on a local level, and I started working with them back in 2014 as a writer and photographer. For those who are unfamiliar, the VOICE is a newspaper with a vendor program that “empowers homeless, impoverished and transient individuals by creating job opportunities.” Each official vendor purchases a paper for 50 cents each (which covers production costs) and sells it on the street for a suggested donation of $2.00. Often times many of the readers donate more than $2, especially when they are return customers to a familiar vendor in their neighborhood. The profit is then kept by the vendor, allowing many of them to get off the streets and into their own apartment. Since 2007, over 4,400 people have been employed through the program.

Denver VOICE photo shoot highlights life stories

This past August the VOICE released a special edition to explore the meaning of home. I first pitched a concept to the editors back in March. Over the course of 2018, we coordinated multiple shoots. I was fortunate to shoot stills for the entire piece. Here is how Sarah Ford, the Managing Editor of the VOICE, explained how the project came about:

We interviewed vendors at the locations they chose to feature, prompting them with informal questions about why the place represented “home” and what their histories there. This allowed vendors to answer it honestly and with self-reflection that made the interviews deeply personal and vulnerable,” explained Sarah. “During the shoot, we allowed the vendors to contribute their vision to the project and choose how and where they wanted to shoot, how they could add to the message of each shot, etc. The end result was an issue that was introspective and moving, and vendors who participated gave feedback that they found the project personally empowering.”

Coordinating the various parties proved a little difficult, but the effort was worthwhile. It led to adventures across the whole Front Range of Colorado. I wanted to combine spoken word testimonials with in-camera dual exposures portraits. My aim was to juxtapose a moment in time, or a period of their life that was important to their past – and to contrast that experience with their current situation. It was quite the process of discovery for all involved, and for some, it was even therapeutic.

Here are some of their stories:

JOHN ALEXANDER – The Ramada Inn, Denver CO
John began his descent into over 20 years of drug addiction. It was here at the Denver VOICE office, just a block away from the hotel, where that chapter of his life ended. In that one-block stretch is a story of many struggles and many miles John is now ready to share.

“God has left us here with one of the best teachers in the universe, which is experience.”

DAVID GORDON – Emerson Street, Denver CO
The bland-colored apartment complex just off Emerson Street in Capitol Hill may not stand out to most passersby. But to David, the complex where he once lived, represents a better time, one where he found himself as a man. It is the only place he ever had true happiness before losing everything.

“I moved away from here and I lost my way. I started living a different life. Maybe this place kept me grounded. I think this is a place I came back to, because it’s where I felt safe. Maybe I came home.”


Before finding the VOICE, Raelene spent her nights sleeping underneath a bridge in Boulder. Now she owns her own trailer and is maximizing the opportunities she was given to help other vendors looking for their own success.

 “You learn you can’t bring your old street friends into your home because most don’t care about your things. You start to change the people you hang around and find life is changing for you. To me, safety and a chance to breath are the best things about having a home.”

ANN BITELA – Triangle Park, Denver CO

Triangle Park off of Lawrence Street is a vortex of personal history for Ann. It was where she slept when she first became homeless. It sits between the Denver Rescue Mission and Samaritan House, two organizations that played a role in helping her survive. After finding the VOICE and getting off the streets, Ann still recognizes the park as the heart of her history experiencing homelessness.

“I lost my job in marketing. I was there five and a half years, I was doing really well, then we all got laid off. I was sleeping right in this tiny little park. When it got really cold I would go to St. Francis to try to beat that lottery to get a bed. It was hard. But it makes you strong being out here. There’s nobody you could trust but yourself,” says Ann.

“You always had to watch your back because somebody always wanted to take your backpack, your money, even your shoes. When I slept here, I had to sleep inside my sleeping bag with my socks and shoes and everything on. Because at 3:00 in the morning the cops would come and shine a bright light in your face and say you gotta get up, you’re gonna have to move, you can’t be here.”

Shout out to my amazing production assistants Annie Borrell and Ryan Carter for helping throughout this entire project! I’m excited to work with you all again soon. Also here is a link to a 4-part article discussing the history of gentrification in Denver, written by VOICE writer Robert Davis. PEACE OUT!

Hey! Please e-mail me if you would like to purchase this photo!