Firsthand Accounts

“Firsthand Accounts” is a photo series that portrays stories of ordinary people from all walks of life. This project offers a voice to the voiceless — unique individuals seeking to share lessons from their life experiences. In turn, these lessons, or “accounts” will serve as “firsthand” evidence to bridge a connection with a wider audience. All personal anecdotes documented in this series were organically collected through chance encounters in downtown Austin, Texas.

Joshua

Joshua Greene stands outside of his workplace on 6th Street

Be present. When you worry about the future it causes anxiety. When you worry about the past, it’s depression. Being present literally saved my life.

As I approached Joshua, he was on duty, working the door of a bar downtown enticing guests to check out the venue. I immediately admired Joshua’s positive outlook on life. He came off to be very humble, especially as he expressed his appreciation for his current position and sharing that it was a rewarding feeling to follow his gut by leaving Portland. He moved to Austin, Texas in 2018. At first, it was a challenge to secure adequate housing, transportation, and to find work, but Joshua persevered. These discomforts seemed to be a small price to pay given the discontent Joshua felt in Portland. I sensed that he struggled to find a sense of belonging there after he mentioned it was a “cliquey place.” Joshua’s positivity steered the conversation back to what brings him energy — music. 

Joshua is passionately creating hiphop and R&B music. In addition to being an artist, he is also a motivated entrepreneur with plans to break into the marketing and branding side of business. Before departing, Joshua shared with me an essential element of success,“Be present. When you worry about the future it causes anxiety. When you worry about the past, it’s depression. Being present literally saved my life.”

Madison

It was at the point when I was on the parking garage on campus, and I was about to jump, but then I got a phone call that saved me.

As a symbol of her upbringing in East Texas, Madison has a colorful tattoo of a cicada on the upper portion of her left arm. On the other arm is an intricate design of geometric shapes topped with purple roses that represent her family. Tattooed on the back of her neck is a semicolon, symbolizing her perseverance through her mental health struggles.  

While in college, Madison endured two years of severe depression. She described pervasive thoughts of suicide that entered her mind daily. “It was at the point when I was on the parking garage on campus, and I was about to jump, but then I got a phone call that saved me.” Luckily, Madison overcame this struggle and has dedicated her life to her calling. With a renewed sense of hope, Madison now pursues her passion as a musician in Austin, Texas, the “live music capitol of the world.” 

Curtis

I wanted to be a football player. I wanted to play for the Oilers.

I met Curtis on 6th Street in downtown Austin, TX. He was holding a sign stating that he was homeless and needed money. As I waited for the traffic signal, our conversation began.  

Curtis is now 50 years old and homeless. He informed me that he just finished serving his time in prison after punching a cop that roughed him up one night in Port Aransas, Texas three years ago. Curtis went on to sharing stories about how one of his ex-girlfriends stabbed him when he was younger. On a separate occasion, he was injured more severely by another ex-girlfriend’s father after a game of pool, or rather three. Apparently the man was a sore loser: “I went to shake his hand after the last game and he’d already had the gun drawn,” Curtis recalled. He was shot that day near the hip by the man’s .38 caliber pistol. “Thirteen years later, I was able to get the bullet cut out,” Curtis said nonchalantly. Apparently the body rejects foreign objects naturally. 

Our conversation went deeper as I asked Curtis a few more questions. Cutis opened up after I prompted him to tell me about his biggest struggle. He responded, “Child molestation when I was a kid.” Through this sobering moment, I could feel the pain from his trauma through the stare itself. In order to lighten the mood, I asked another question, “When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?” 

“I wanted to be a football player. I wanted to play for the Oilers,” Curtis replied. 

“Did you play ball in high school?” I asked. 

“I played wide receiver and linebacker, but it was hard. I went to five different high schools in two years,” he responded. He continued to list the different schools and cities he lived in at that time. I took a minute to think about what Curtis was saying, but figured out what he was insinuating. This was followed by an intense pause. As we looked each other in the eye, it was all clear. I broke the silence by asking, “You were trafficked, weren’t you?” 

Curtis confirmed with a soft nod.

Michael

I was working at Popeyes, that was my first job. I would take home two bags of food from work every night and leave one bag of food for homeless people.

Michael expressed that excessive weight has been a lifelong challenge to control. “When I was young, I was big — ever since I was six years old, I was overweight,” he stated as he scrolled through his phone to show me yearbook photos from grade school to depict a gradual weight gain over the years. By the time he was nineteen, things began to change. 

Michael pulled up a picture and it was nearly unrecognizable. When I asked about the change in his physique, he responded by saying, “A friend of mine, who became a personal trainer, helped me a lot and I lost seventy pounds.”  

What I admire most about Michael is his humility and appreciation for the world. He described trials of adversity and showed me video of a flood that rose above the banks of Onion Creek in South Austin and destroyed his family’s home. “At 5:30 in the morning, a neighbor woke us up and the water had already risen to our driveway. Ten to fifteen minutes later it was in our house! The water nearly rose to the top of our mattresses, about waist high. After that experience my family moved to Buda (Texas).” 

Michael still lives in Buda, Texas and commutes to Austin, Texas to report to work at a popular restaurant. This is an industry that he has been familiar since his teenage years. “I was working at Popeyes, that was my first job. I would take home two bags of food from work every night and leave one bag of food for homeless people.”

Mike

The devil you don’t know is worse than the devil you do know.

Mike grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts, just an hour and a half west of Boston. He reminisced about childhood memories of spending time with his brothers, riding dirt bikes, and wandering through the hilly Appalachian region. Despite doing “normal kid stuff,” Mike learned from a young age the importance of having a strong work ethic. “My dad was a fisherman. Everyone does a trade out there, like hard work, you know?” 

Throughout his teenage years, Mike juggled odd jobs that fit into his schedule as a musician. He later joined a band named Maker and toured throughout Europe. “We toured like seven months out of the year. I was broke all the time — I was broke as hell!” After experiencing the musician lifestyle, certain events unfolded and prompted him to move across the country. 

I was interviewing Mike while he was serving craft beer from behind the bar in a pool hall off of 6th Street in Austin, Texas. The mood changed. Mike’s childish charm washed away for a brief moment when he confided that drugs, specifically heroin, had devastated his family. Mike’s brother became addicted to heroin and could not escape its grip. Mike elaborated, “Life kinda hit and I moved down here. There’s a lot of heroin (in Amherst, MA). All my friends from high school died. I have Narcan in my truck right now — my other brother committed suicide, you know.” 

It was at this time when I set aside my clipboard and pen and reached across the bar to share an embrace. Mike ended our conversation with a few words, “The devil you don’t know is worse than the devil you do know.”

Elisario

When you die once, you live once. All we have to do is go through the obstacles and move forward. Be brave. No fear in your heart.

“I was, like, not really giving a crap about anything. I was drinking whisky and moonshine at the same time. It came to the point when I coughed up blood.” Elisario described the moment when he found out that he had cancer. Elisario battled both liver and kidney cancer before the age of twenty-four.

When asked about how the drinking began, Elisario shared that he started drinking heavily when he was thirteen years old. Around that time he described the trauma that led to alcohol abuse by stating, “It was losing my best friend. Me being a kid and seeing death, it was hard. He died and got shot in the crossfire.” Elisario said his best friend died in his arms after being struck by a bullet. 

Despite countless hardships, Elisario still manages to stay positive and focus on the future. He is truly a “Jack-of-all-trades” and has honed a plethora of skills. He is a dance teacher, a musician, a tattoo artist, an entrepreneur, and an amateur/professional skater. As a bouncer on 6th Street, Elisario sees his fair share of intoxicated people, yet this serves as a constant reminder of how precious a sober life truly is. He has since quit drinking heavily and is now five and a half months in remission. 

Elisario left me with encouraging advice for anyone enduring a similar struggle, “When you die once, you live once. All we have to do is go through the obstacles and move forward. Be brave. No fear in your heart.”


Eric Skadson is a Milwaukee-based artist and documentary photographer. Roughly six years ago, he discovered his calling as he backpacked through Nepal and India. There, he documented his journey and acculturation through the art of photography. To this day, this experience continues to inspire him and shapes his perspective as an artist. Moreover, he has embraced this calling with a mission to capture the essence of the human experience through imagery and cultural exchange.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: