“House of Charm” is the ongoing portrait of Lee, a woman whose eccentricities conceal a beauty and intelligence that most people do not easily see.

I met Lee in 2003 when I moved in around the corner from her. At first, like others, I knew her as the neighborhood “bag lady,” a dread-locked raider of recycling bins who pushed her shopping cart through the early morning streets. Lee’s dilapidated home stood out in a neighborhood where even the most modest homes were valued at half a million dollars. She had neither heat nor running water. The roof and floors were rotting; many windows were broken; and the rooms were choked with recycling, found objects, and cat feces. The condition of her house was—and continues to be—what most would consider uninhabitable.

Most people perceive Lee as “crazy,” someone to be avoided. Few get close enough to learn that while she is eccentric, she is also intelligent, charming, and self-assured. And perhaps most remarkably, that she leads the life she chooses to—one for which she is neither apologetic nor ashamed.

A social worker by training, I have long been interested in ideas of beauty, happiness, and mental health—especially as they relate to women. In a culture obsessed with youth, materialism, and physical appearance, Lee’s apparent indifference to these things sets her apart. Is Lee crazy to be happy in conditions others could not tolerate? Is something wrong with her? Who decides?

Lee will soon turn 80. In the almost 10 years that I have been photographing her she has lived an independent life. That changed several months ago when she was hit by a car. Since then, Lee has been convalescing in a rehab facility, her prognosis uncertain. It is possible that she will lose her leg. Whatever happens, it is unlikely that Lee will resume the independent life she has always known.

—Jessica Eve Rattner

Editors’ note: Jessica Eve Rattner is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as named in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards. She was also one of the eight “jurors’ picks.” Here is her winning entry and artist’s statement. You can read more about what made her work so special in the eyes of the jury.