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Face to face

Adam Murphy’s portraits reveal the human dimension of Iron Gate’s mission to feed the hungry


Adam Murphy

It’s Tulsa’s largest stand-alone soup kitchen and grocery pantry. Its 1,300 volunteers served almost 210,000 hot meals last year and provided 12,000 families and 14,000 kids with groceries and food packs.

Despite the scope of its impact, Iron Gate, founded in 1978, is one of those organizations whose mission many don’t fully understand. Some assume that the people it serves are mostly homeless. But that’s just not the case, said Adam Murphy, the photographer who shot its eighth annual “Faces of Iron Gate” campaign this year.

“You or I could go there and get breakfast or lunch and they’re not going to ask you a thing,” he explained. “No ID, no religious orientation, no race, creed, or color. Just, ‘Come through our doors; here’s some food.’”

Murphy spent a year at Iron Gate talking with guests and taking their portraits, which hang 360 degrees around the viewer at his Kendall Whittier studio. “Because I could take time with it, I was able to listen to their stories, get a feel for who they are as human beings,” he said. “I’d just shoot a frame through a sentence, while they’re speaking, while they’re laughing. I tried to capture not just their personality but also the character of Iron Gate, the people they help and inspire.

“It’s hard to be inspired without a full belly,” he said.

The portraits are massive, printed on German rag paper, and shot in black and white with a soft, subtle focus and an extremely shallow depth of field that draws the viewer into the subject’s eyes.

Murphy pointed out a photo of Leroy taken in striking profile—a face like an eagle’s.

“This gentleman was a taxi driver his whole life,” he said. “He has a house. He’s making ends meet, he’s paying his bills, but he’s also getting support from Iron Gate to put food in his stomach.

“He’s worked hard and dealt with the circumstances he was given throughout his life. We’ve all made mistakes. It’s just that some people have a bigger support system than others. That’s what Iron Gate is there for.”

In another portrait, a woman looks up, smiling into a gentle light, her freckles sparkling, her sweater softly fuzzing around her shoulders. “She had two children at the time and was pregnant with her third,” Murphy remembered. “They have a home and she has a husband and he works, so for them it’s supplementing how they’re able to feed their kids. Her kids were looking up to her, and I got really inspired by that.”

Sales of the portraits support Iron Gate, which moves into a new space next to the downtown Salvation Army this fall, after something of a struggle with prospective locations in recent years due to the stigma around the people it serves. The portraits were unveiled for a one-night showing on July 12 during the Kendall Whittier Art Walk, but Murphy hopes they might make rounds at other galleries. More than anything, he hopes they’ll create awareness about what Iron Gate really does, so the conversation doesn’t end here.

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