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Drill sergeant-turned-photographer Jerry Tovo shines light on homeless veterans

A black and white photograph of a homeless veteran.
Jerry Novo
Phillip, a homeless veteran, was photographed by Jerry Tovo in 2012.

As a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War, it was Jerry Tovo’s job to shape the minds and bodies of young soldiers being deployed to combat. Tovo went on to become a successful commercial photographer, but in 2012, he turned his camera lens toward the kinds of men he once served with, traveling the country to document the rolling crisis of veteran homelessness.

Tovo’s portraits of veterans — captured in his distinctive high-contrast black and white — were first featured in a Missouri History Museum exhibit in 2014, and return later this month in a new exhibit at the International Photography Hall of Fame.

Danny Wicentowski
St. Louis Public Radio
Jerry Tovo, a former drill sergeant, is behind a new exhibition of portraits of homeless veterans.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Tovo explained that he was initially inspired by a wave of press coverage of veterans who lived on the streets as they struggled with addiction, trauma and homelessness.

His style of photography, which he described as showing “people who wear their lives on their faces,” seemed well-suited to capturing powerful images of homeless veterans.

“I thought this could be something interesting,” Tovo recalled. “Maybe I could do some sort of an awareness campaign, maybe motivate some people to do something about it.”

Along with St. Louis, Tovo visited multiple cities to capture the stark portraits, which will be featured in the upcoming exhibit In the Faces of Patriotism: The Homeless Veterans Project, which opens March 30 at the International Photography Hall of Fame.

Finding his subjects proved challenging, at least at first.

Listen: Turning the lens on homeless veterans

“We learned that we couldn't just show up in a community without having some plan,” he said, adding that he learned to coordinate with local groups to find veterans who’d be willing to be photographed.

Tovo said he hopes his photos can jolt viewers into seeing these veterans in all their humanity and worth. Their faces, he adds, should confront viewers with the reality they live in, and “slap some people alongside the head and get motivated and do something about it.”

“They're not just empty bodies out there, or bums and stuff like that,” Tovo said. “These are people.”

Related Event

What: In the Faces of Patriotism: The Homeless Veterans Project
When: March 30 to June 11, 2022
Where: International Photography Hall of Fame, 3415 Olive Street, St. Louis, MO 63103

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowskiand Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."