With heroic names like Life, KnightVigil, the Crimson Fist and Thanatos, the subjects of photographer Peter Tangen’s latest project might sound like new and exciting additions to the Justice League, or members of a new superteam spinning out of the Avengers. In fact, these and other heroes are members of a community that patrol the streets of New York City, Atlanta and Vancouver to give aid to the homeless, mentor at-risk youth and perform other charitable deeds – in real life. “The Real Life Superhero Project” is a collection of portraits, videos and movie-style posters created by Tangen and a team of volunteers, designed to celebrate the men and women who, for several distinct reasons and to many different effects, put on a costume in an effort to improve lives in their communities.
Tangen is a Los Angeles-based photographer whose primary business is shooting promotional materials including movie posters for films and television shows with the iconic posters of “Spider-Man” and “Batman Begins” among his works. The artist, who discovered the real-life superhero culture on the internet as he was looking for a project to undertake independently, told CBR that the culture has existed perhaps for decades but is experiencing a reemergence now. Most of the heroes do not know each other personally, but there is an active online community.
“Because I’ve done so much work within the genre of superhero movies, the idea that these people exist really appealed to me,” Tangen said. “I began to do a lot of research and discovered there’s quite a large community of people who are referred to by the media as ‘real-life superheroes.’ I decided I wanted to do a photographic essay on them.
“I went to Vancouver to do a photo shoot for a client, and I reached out to a man up there who goes by the name Thanatos,” Tangen continued. “At the time, he was a 61-year-old man in Vancouver and his short story is that he was going out at three o’clock in the morning in civilian clothes, just giving food and supplies to people who were living on the streets and not getting into the shelter system. He felt, after doing it for three years, that he wasn’t being especially effective. The people he was helping wouldn’t recognize him from previous visits and he wasn’t really creating any sense of awareness of his efforts.” Awareness, Tangen explained, was not for Thanatos’s benefit but to create a sense of continuity, to give the idea that a certain person cares rather than simply being one of a succession of anonymous, one-time givers who might never think of the beneficiary again.
“He wanted to take it a step further. The local police department had indicated to him that the only thing that people on the streets of Vancouver have to look forward to is death. So he decided to take on the identity of Thanatos, which in mythology is the god of death,” Tangen said. “What he’s discovered since deciding to do this a year and a half or so ago, maybe two years now, is that the people he helps remember him. I’ve been on the streets with him at three o’clock in the morning, doing a homeless outreach, and I’ve seen people that have never met him before and I’ve seen people he’s helped for quite some time. There is a different reaction because of the appearance than you would have if he were in civilian clothes.
“He’s effectively marketing good deeds. For people who are living on the streets, who have no real community besides those on the streets with them, he creates in them a sense of belonging, that there’s someone looking out for them, which is impossible to do in civilian clothes because you’re not easy to remember,” the photographer continued. “So the work he does up there is really quite extraordinary and he does it all self-funded. And he gives people his business card when he meets them – which is, you know, a business card for Thanatos and on the back of it, it says ‘Friend.’ I’ve learned that what he’s trying to do is just make a difference in the world in a small way, but the effect he has is that can identify with them in a way that is much more impactful for someone on the streets that he may be helping. Because there’s one person helping them on a regular basis, instead of the anonymity of passing strangers, what he’s done is remembered.”
Thanatos was the first to be photographed, and his stature within the real-life superhero community made him an effective advocate for Tangen’s project, which the photographer hopes will be a departure from the way the community is normally presented in the media. “In my research, I learned that stories about these people are being treated in three ways by the media: the first and most common reaction the media has is to exploit them or mock them or do a light-hearted puff piece that isn’t in any way serving them,” Tangen told CBR. “Second to that, and less common, is an investigative journalism approach, just looking at what these people are and what they do. It’s a little bit more intellectual, but it is still without opinion: this is what they do, you make up your mind whether they’re crazy or not. It also doesn’t really react to the effects that they have on the world around them.
“On rare occasions, people in the media have discovered this culture of people and understood that in fact the stories they tell and what they stand for can actually be very inspirational. Because, in effect what they stand for is the idea that one person can make a difference. And I can tell you countless stories of how that’s actually the case,” Tangen continued. “I decided that I wanted to tell a story that was inspirational. Once you get past the idea of their costumes and you actually see what they’re doing, you realize that have actual real power that we all share. So I began to assemble my little plan with a group of collaborators. A couple weeks after I photographed Thanatos, we had 19 people from all over the country come into LA for a one-day photo shoot. It was quite an extraordinary event.”
Tangen noted that the day of the photo shoot was a significant even within the community itself, as it was the first time many of the heroes had met each other. “These people who came from across the land had the opportunity to meet people they’d been in communication with for several years but had never actually met. They had the chance to get together and talk about what they do.”
About thirty volunteers from the photography and film industries, using donated equipment and services, came together to work on the photo shoot. “Everybody that was there, was there because they had heard about these people and were inspired by the story. The impression people had at the end of the day was that it had been an amazing event,” Tangen said. “People said they felt they were literally better people for having been there and experiencing that event. If we had been hired to do what we did that day, not including the cost of actually flying people in, the photo shoot itself would have cost easily $100,000 to execute, but we did it for next to nothing because of the volunteer basis of everybody that was there.”
Tangen said the posters were designed to show the heroes “not how they see themselves, but how the people they help see them,” and were created in the style of movie teaser or character posters to portray a series of individual stories. “Generally speaking, it’s a rule of thumb that a really good movie poster tells a story. It may not be the story of the movie from start to finish, but it tells a story enough that it piques the interest of the viewer and tells enough about what the movie is that they understand what they’re going to go see,” Tangen explained. “The content of the movie poster is typically three different elements: one is the visuals, whether photographic or illustrative or a combination of those things. Another is the copy that might be tied to the poster. And then the third is just the title of the movie. Each of those elements should add to the overall narrative of what the poster is. So if you have a Tom Cruise movie about a secret agent and it takes place during wartime, you don’t want to tell all of that in a line of copy. You want to have the visuals and the title of the movie add up to that information.”
Taking the example of the “Life” poster, the first to appear on his Real Life Super Hero Project website, Tangen walked through the thought process. “Since he’s so much in the street, he rarely goes anywhere without granola bars or something that would enable him to help someone who’s helpless or needy, we decided that we would have him reaching into a group of people that could use his help. It’s a very visual tool to get that message across. And because he’s so much in the streets of New York City, we chose a New York City location for the background image. Since he was raised a Hasidic Jew, we decided we were going to use the Hebrew text for the word ‘chai,’ which is translated into ‘life,’ for what would be in other posters the title of the movie. Then for the copy line, we further express the idea that, where people make an effort to help others, there’s a further opportunity for those who are being helped to have hope,” Tangen said. “Those elements together talk about him, where he is, what he stands for and the optimism that he inspires in people that he serves.”
In addition to the movie-style posters, Tangen and his crew created a series of other photographic pieces. “We did a couple of group shots that are very definitely an homage to Alex Ross; straight up, out of the box, we’re not ripping him off – we’re honoring him. The other thing done is [we created] a series of portraits, which you can see a few of on the website,” he said. “As much as the posters are meant to show them as they are seen by the people they help, the collection of portraits was shot very much in the same style, with the intention of having the viewer look past the mask, perhaps identify with the real human being behind the outfit and and hopefully discover themselves the relatability of that person as a regular person and find in themselves a hero they may have not known existed.”
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