Arpad Lovas is tall and gangly — it almost looks like he outgrew his own skin. A few weeks ago, he ambled into my office in too-loose jeans and an oversized jacket, his short-by-comparison, bright-eyed wife Hannah in tow. Lovas speaks English, but not very well. He communicates through images, not words. Hannah is there to serve as his translator.

Lovas, 34, emigrated from Esztergom, Hungary, a small town rich in history and art and architecture, in 2011. He was drawn to the U.S. by hip-hop, and dreamed of visiting the California gravesite of Eazy-E. Eventually he did just that — and it was a seminal moment in his life, the reason he bought his first camera. I’ll let him tell you about that in a second.

A fellow Hungarian whom he didn’t even know offered him a place to stay in Northeast Florida. Lovas found his own place in time, but he still struggled, unaccustomed to the language and culture. He didn’t own a car, so he biked everywhere. There were days when he didn’t know how he’d eat.

He thought about moving back to Hungary until he met Hannah. “I feel like two souls meet from a very far place,” he says of her, in a broken English that is not without charm. “Our birthdays are one day different.” 

Hannah helped him acculturate and learn the language. She also gave him grounding — a reason to stay.

His time as an outsider, a stranger in a strange land, still permeates his photography, vivid images of a segment of humanity that is too often and too easily kept out of sight, out of mind. Lovas has spent the last few years chronicling life on the streets of Jacksonville with a sense of raw, unflinching honesty — no judgment, no artificial sentiment, just reality through a lens.

Any given night, there are some 2,600 homeless people in Duval County — the fifth-highest total in the state — and another couple hundred in the surrounding counties. We often do our best to pretend they don’t exist, to cordon them off in the recesses of our minds as drunkards or crazies or slackers, nuisances, impediments to commerce and progress.

The truth is usually more complex, just as people — even those who live on the streets or in the woods — are usually more complex, not given to simplistic stereotypes. As Lovas puts it, “I find that many times people in the hardest situations are still smiling and have joy on their faces.”

In this Q&A — conducted through email, with Hannah’s translation assistance — I talked to Lovas about his life and his art.

Folio Weekly: Tell me how and why you moved to Northeast Florida — why you left Hungary and what made you decide to settle in Jacksonville.

Arpad Lovas: I grew up in Esztergom, Hungary, but always loved listening to American rap music. My biggest dream was to visit the graveside of Eazy-E, Eric Wright, of NWA. I began talking through MySpace with a rap artist, Tony G, who was personal friends with Eazy’s son. He arranged for me to meet with him in California at the graveside if I was able to come to America. This was a dream come true, one of the biggest moments in my life.

I began planning how I would get to America. I came first to Florida, where I planned to stay with another Hungarian person whom I had never met. At this time I was completely alone and spoke zero English, so it was a scary move to make. I didn’t know where I would live, where I would work or how I would talk with people. God helped me. That is the only explanation I have.

I was able to support myself and find my own apartment. After being in Florida for a few months, I was able to fly to California and meet with my online friend. We met with Eazy’s son, and I saw the places that I had only dreamed about seeing. This is what inspired me to buy my first Nikon camera. I had always wanted a quality camera, but Hungary is a very poor country. It would take me a very long time to save up the money to buy one living in Hungary, but here it was less expensive. I decided to invest in a camera to take pictures of my California trip.

After this huge accomplishment came a very hard time. I was alone, living every day not knowing how I would even buy food. I had no car and rode my bicycle wherever I had to go. I still had not learned much about American people because I was so isolated due to language. It was during this time that I met my wife, Hannah. At first we were only able to communicate through a Web translator. She was patient with me, teaching me how to speak English and about American culture. I felt that this woman was different from other women that I had met. I still was not sure if I would stay in the United States or go back to Hungary, but we fell in love and decided to get married. That made up my mind about living here.

F.W.: What made you decide to photograph the homeless?

A.L.: Because I worked in the hospital in Hungary, I saw many people with physical and mental disabilities and saw death every day, in the morgue as an assistant. This made me think hard about life and death and what is important. I began making a documentary of a man I had met and became friends with. I wanted to record what life was like for this man, who lived in absolute poverty and struggled with mental illness and alcoholism. After moving to the U.S., I learned that my friend was murdered as a result of his alcoholism. That was something that made me want to show people the reality of what they may not want to see or think about.

F.W.: You have no formal training in photography, correct?

A.L.: I learned how to use my camera through trial and error. I just practiced and over time learned my personal style. When I made my first pictures, I fell in love with the camera and couldn’t stop.

F.W.: Walk us through the process of how you decide whom to shoot.

A.L.: I don’t have a plan when I am taking pictures. I go out on my bike and see what is happening in the city. I just see a moment or person who is interesting and take my photos. It is important to me to capture un-posed, natural moments, when the person may or may not know they are being photographed. This is much more beautiful to me than shooting a model. I love real life.

Many times I do talk with the people I photograph, especially for portraits, and try to learn something about them. I just walk up and introduce myself and ask if I can take a photo. At first talking was hard because of the language difference, but the people I have met have been so friendly and willing to give me a few minutes of their time. People are usually curious about my accent and ask where I am from. I am often surprised and happy at how open people can be and the things we have in common.

F.W.: What do you hope that people learn from your photography?

A.L.:In my photos, I just want to capture real life and real people. I want to show that there is more than one side to life, not just the material things. Sometimes we focus on money and having the best things, but this is also life even though some aspects are very sad. I find that many times people in the hardest situations are still smiling and have joy on their faces. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes. We never know when we could be going through a hard time in our own life. I feel that it is important to treat everyone with respect and try to live that in my life, not judging anyone.

F.W.: You have a show in February’s Art Walk, in TAC Studio Gallery on Hogan Street. Tell us about that.

A.L.: The photos I will be showing are from all sides of life — some street photos and some pictures of just a moment in time, but all are real photos of life. I am so grateful for this event and the people who have helped this happen. When I came here, I never imagined that I could have this type of opportunity.