In ‘Vernon’s World,’ a Young Photographer Documents the Life of a Homeless Teenager

Vernon Foster walks down 9th Street to visit a friend in a park. He roams shirtless whenever it’s warm enough to allow it. (Photo by Sam Wilson)

MISSOURI — Unaccustomed to the cold, hard floor in his spot next to the door of the public bathrooms in Trenton, Missouri, Sam Wilson, 22, slept badly. In a stall next to him, Vernon Foster, 18, didn’t have the same trouble. By the time Foster woke, Wilson had been in a state somewhere between sleep and wakefulness for hours, apologizing to the morning walkers as they filtered through the bathroom, surprised to see two young boys asleep on the floor.

“It’s totally weird for people to open up the bathroom door and see two kids sleeping in the stall, and one of them with a camera,” said Wilson.

But the uncomfortable conditions and noise meant that he was awake to capture some of the shots seen in “Vernon’s World,” Wilson’s contribution to the 65th annual Missouri Photo Workshop, which aims to capture the story of small town Missouri.

It wasn’t just the lack of sleep that gave him the opportunity to shoot. It was primarily the trust that he earned from Foster—and gained in Foster—that allowed him that access. For Wilson to be able to capture the story in a way that he felt was fair and true, that trust had to be mutual. He need Foster’s confidence for full access, but just as importantly, he needed to believe that Foster was telling and showing him the truth and that he, in turn, could do the same for his audience. Sleeping on the floor of the public bathroom and at a friend’s house, where Foster slept at the foot of a bed, gave Wilson the ability to see the story, and gave Foster the ability to see Wilson as someone who could be trusted.

“He was almost excited about the idea of somebody sharing a space with him,” Wilson said, “because it’s a very lonely place and I feel like he would be able to trust me more.”

Every night, Foster sleeps in the public bathroom, without a blanket, or bounces around to the houses of various friends and acquaintances to sleep on the floor. At 18, he has alienated many of the people that a typical teenager would trust and depend on. He is estranged from much of his family and, since finishing high school, has lost the safety net that school provided.

While Foster says that he has diagnoses ranging from Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Attention Deficit Disorder to the lesser-known Intermittent Explosive Disorder (a point of pride, for Foster, who knows of WWE wrestlers with the same diagnosis), his father and stepmother deny that his issues are more severe than simply being a difficult and manipulative person.

During his reporting, these discrepancies posed a problem for Wilson. At times, when he felt that Foster was putting on a show for the sake of the camera, he would stop shooting or ask his subject’s acquaintances if the behavior was typical for him. Eventually, he came to realize that although Foster was at times performing for the camera, it was in the same way that he behaved for others, for the sake of attention.

“It’s sort of the same thing,” he said. “He was putting on a performance.”

As the final component of the workshop, photo essays were displayed at Trenton High School for the town to see. Because Foster had recently graduated from the high school, faculty and staff who saw his photos were concerned, and one of Foster’s former teachers contacted Wilson in an effort to reach him and help. Others from the town expressed their concern—both for Foster, and often for the well being of Trenton—on social media.

While Wilson is pleased that the story has received attention, there is one person who Wilson most hopes it will reach.

“I was thinking that maybe his mom would see that he was starting to feel remorse and see that he was sorry and maybe see him as a son again and he could see his mom as a mom again,” he said.

Those who have seen or heard Foster’s story have made suggestions of shelters in nearby towns where he could potentially stay, or offered to find him and give him money to help him meet his needs so that he can find a job, Wilson thinks that Foster’s best hope comes from the same place he does: his family.

“If people want to help him that’s great but what he really needs is a solid family support,” he said.


Photo Caption: Vernon sleeps next to a puddle of spilt soda from the night before. (Photo by Sam Wilson)


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