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February 11, 2013

Salem photographer puts a face on homelessness

SALEM — Every day, they watch people walk by them without a word or a smile.

They’re young and homeless, struggling to survive on the streets in Harvard Square. But a Salem photographer’s portrait series plastered on the outside facade of a Cambridge building is getting them, and the need to end youth homelessness, noticed.

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“This same photo that is beautiful is the same kid that society will walk by and ignore,” said Anthony Pira, 42, a graduate student in social work at Salem State University and creator of the “Invisible Faces” series.

The 3-by-4 1/2-foot portraits show members of Youth on Fire, a drop-in center on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, ironically adjacent to Harvard Law. The center provides showers, laundry services, food, warmth and prevention programs for homeless teens and young adults between the ages of 14 and 24.

“He just brings out this amazing ability to really capture the strength, power and resilience that our young people have,” said Ayala Livny, program manager for Youth on Fire. “For them to survive all the things they have survived and still be alive and around at 21, 22, 23 is an amazing accomplishment for them.”

Pira came up with the idea last March while interning for the National Association of Social Workers in Boston. He spent much of his time lobbying at the Statehouse for funding for particular bills, among them a bill on unaccompanied minor and youth homelessness. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, close to 6,000 public high school students in the state are homeless and without family support.

That got him thinking about what else he might do, and he turned to his photography skills. The results have been rewarding.

“We have hundreds of photos of ourselves literally from the time we were born to today,” Pira said. “Every day I’m with these kids, they say they’ve never had a photo of themselves. ... When they see themselves on the camera, it blows them away. They feel so empowered by it. They feel so enriched by being able to see themselves.”

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