WHEN PHOTOGRAPHER JIM Hubbard arrives, the federal marshals are serving the young mother with eviction papers and the moving crew stands ready to haul her possessions out to the curb. Swearing that she's paid her rent, she scrambles around the small Northwest Washington apartment, looking for a receipt. Finding nothing, she starts to shake and cry, and that sight sets her children crying, too. A neighbor tries to calm her: "Now don't go into one of those fits . . ." But the soothing words fail. The woman runs outside, weeping, pulling at her hair, throwing her hands into the air, her face twisted in anguish.

The scene holds high drama for Jim Hubbard's camera, but for a moment he hesitates to use it. Even after 20 years of photographing human tragedy on three continents, he feels guilty aiming his Nikon at such agony. Do I really want to do this? he thinks. This is painful, this is really depressing.

He considers writing a check, paying the woman's rent. It would cost him only $635. But he knows he can't do that. He has already put his own kids in financial jeopardy by quitting his job as a UPI photographer to study divinity and photograph the destitute. Hubbard's life has been a long, agonized quest to find some way to serve God and man, and, at 44, he still lacerates his conscience with the kinds of questions that most adults long ago ceased asking themselves. What do you do in a situation like this? he thinks.

He does what he always does: He hoists his camera to his eye and starts shooting. He photographs the crowd gawking, the mother weeping, the daughter's dismay as she watches movers carry pieces of her life -- plants, books, a bicycle, an artificial Christmas tree -- and dump them at the curb.

When the woman sees him shooting pictures, she explodes. "This is no joke!" she yells. "Everybody thinks this is funny but this hurts!"

The words hit Hubbard like a punch

and resurrect painful memories of the day 15 years ago when he watched his daughter die. He recalls what he had thought at that moment: If somebody tried to take my picture now, I'd kill him.

He considers leaving, just popping on his lens cap and driving away, but he decides against it. Instead, he waits a few minutes, then speaks to the woman in a calm, gentle voice. He isn't a newspaper photographer, he tells her, he is shooting pictures for a group called Congressional Families for the Homeless. His pictures -- and those of other photographers -- will appear in a book and in exhibitions at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and around the country. He shares some information he's picked up shooting the homeless -- phone numbers of a place where she can store her possessions for free and a group that can help her find shelter. Soon, she is apologizing for yelling at him.

Meanwhile, the movers keep coming, carrying toys, beds, bags of clothing, a pot holding corn left over from the family's last supper. When everything else is out, they wrestle the refrigerator down the steps and set it on the sidewalk. While the movers unscrew its door, the federal marshals, who police all evictions in the District, climb into their car. They are about to leave when a small miracle occurs: A friend summoned by phone arrives with a fistful of greenbacks and pays the rent. Grumbling, the movers begin lugging everything back into the apartment. The woman cries tears of joy. Hubbard captures them on film.

When the long, emotional ordeal is over, he takes the woman aside for a talk. A few minutes later, he emerges with signed permission to use her photograph. With sweat soaking his close-clipped beard, he sprawls on the driver's seat of his battered brown Volvo. Though he frequently exhibits a gallows humor in grim circumstances, Hubbard isn't joking now. For a long moment, he sits in his T-shirt, shorts and sneakers and stares silently out the windshield. Then he starts the car. "I felt like a ghoul out there," he says. "But I do believe that showing this kind of pain and suffering is necessary. Maybe it can alter something. If this is shown at the Capitol and the Corcoran, maybe some important people will see it. Maybe it will do some good."

He studies his copy of the marshals' daily list of evictions -- there are 26 scheduled -- and, with his left foot propped up on the dashboard, he drives off toward the next one. WHEN JIM HUBBARD WAS GROWING UP in Detroit in the '50s, his father would periodically pile the family -- Jim, his two brothers and his mother -- into the Chevy on Saturday nights and drive off. But not to a movie or a restaurant. Paul Hubbard -- a teetotaling Baptist who worked in the auto plants during good times and drove a cab during layoffs -- would park the car on skid row near Tiger Stadium so his family could watch the bums and winos, the human waste product of the mighty Motor City, stumbling down the sidewalks or sprawling in the gutters.

The idea was to teach the kids a lesson: This is what happens if you don't work hard or if you drink alcohol. Jim got the point, but he also saw the human beings behind the cautionary tale. How do they live? he wondered. Where do they sleep? Why aren't they taken care of? On those nights, his mother remembers, when Jim knelt down to say his prayers, he would ask God to heal those broken men.

Jim was a sensitive boy, drawn to religion at an early age. He planned to become a Baptist minister like his mother's father and grandfather had been. After church on Sundays, he'd pose in front of his mother's mirror, Bible in hand, imitating the preacher's sermon.

But the piety didn't last. When Jim was about 13, a preacher he admired was unmasked as a fraud who'd fabricated his credentials. Jim, just entering that sullen season of adolescence, was crushed. He drifted away from God and began to rebel against his father. By 16, he was drinking, skipping school, running with a gang. "I was," he says with a wry smile, "a juvenile delinquent."

He barely managed to escape Cody High School with a diploma, then drifted into various jobs -- construction worker, machinist, clothing salesman. In the mid-'60s, he was hired as a copyboy at The Detroit News. There, he was drawn to the photographers, a wonderfully crass and colorful crew of rogues who packed pistols along with their cameras as they prowled the streets. "They got to see a lot of stuff and they were crazy and they raced to scenes and it was really magical for me."

It took a while, but Hubbard managed to join this illustrious group. He worked nights, which meant that he hung around the Anchor Bar with the bookies and the pols, boozing and joking and waiting for the call that would send him rocketing through the streets at death-defying speeds, chasing fires, car crashes, shoot-outs, stickups, murders, riots -- the great sleaze and drama of a seething American city. His press card got him across the police lines, and then he'd step right up close, stare all that death and devastation in the eye, focus right in on it and snap his pictures. Then he'd barrel back to the Anchor to laugh it off over more drinks with the boys.

But some of it wasn't so easy to laugh off. One rainy night, Hubbard stood with other photographers outside the morgue in Ann Arbor and heard parents scream as they identified the body of their murdered daughter. When they emerged, sobbing, the photographers popped their flashbulbs and the father exploded, calling them bastards and animals. Hubbard had to admit that the epithets were accurate. Still, when he came across a motorcycle accident on the way back to Detroit, he dutifully stopped to check it out. The state trooper pulled the blanket off the grisly corpse, and Hubbard shot his picture. Driving back to town, he wondered what kind of gruesome trade he'd embraced.

He would remember that night years later, in 1972, in a hospital hallway in Nebraska. He was 30 then, married to Brininder Singh, a woman from India, and raising their 4-year-old daughter, Brijin Marie, while working for UPI in Omaha. Brijin had problems with her epiglottis, the cartilage that forms a lid over the windpipe, and one night she began to gasp for air. The Hubbards rushed her to the hospital. By the time they checked in, she'd stopped breathing. Then, while Jim watched helplessly, she died. Moments later, sitting in the hallway, he remembered that night in Ann Arbor and contemplated what he'd do to anyone ghoulish enough to snap his picture at this painful moment. "I started to hate myself," he says, "for having done that to other people."

A month later, covering a flood that killed 226 people in South Dakota, he stopped at the morgue to shoot some pictures of the victims for UPI's European clients -- "They like that stuff" -- and he saw, stashed in a corner like so much trash, a pile of dead children. "I almost went crazy on the spot," he recalls. "I took the pictures back and I said, 'I can't do this anymore,' and I went out and got drunk."

Hubbard was often drunk over the next several years. Filled with loathing for his profession and himself, he found the only way he could keep on working was to kill his pain with booze and Valium. JIM HUBBARD IS CRUISING THE STREETS of Washington once again, looking for evictions. For weeks, he has followed the marshals, shooting scores of pictures, searching for that one heartbreaking image that captures all the pain of a family driven from its home. Along the way, he has become an unofficial social worker to the people he has photographed -- driving them in search of shelter, making phone calls for them, taking them shopping, giving them money, escorting them through the swamps of the social service bureaucracy. He is trying, he says, to go beyond photography, to enter -- and perhaps alter -- the lives of the people in his pictures.

"For years, I took a picture and then I left, and it always bothered me," he says. "I always had the yearning to interact more with the people, instead of just photographing the despair and the agony and then leaving and never knowing what happened to the people."

Today, though, the despair and the agony are eluding Hubbard. He arrives at several scheduled evictions only to find that the tenants are already gone or the marshals haven't arrived or the eviction has been postponed. He checks his list and keeps driving, sipping decaffeinated coffee and philosophizing while he maneuvers through traffic. "For me, the whole New Testament is wrapped up in Matthew 25, which is about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless," he says. " 'What you do unto the least of my brothers, this you do unto me.' From a theological perspective, that's enough for me to hang my hat on."

Though he is quick to launch into impromptu sermons, Hubbard is too earthy and ironic to remain on an ethereal plane for long. He possesses a sardonic, even cynical, sense of humor that his wife sees as his psychic defense against the agony he photographs. Now, as he travels to one nonexistent eviction after another, that mordant wit emerges. "Gee, I had this hypothesis that there was human misery all around out here," he says with an impish grin. "But I can't seem to find any today."

He laughs and keeps searching. Finally, he spots what he's looking for: stained mattresses, worn rugs, battered furniture -- somebody's possessions piled at the curb. Hubbard stops his car, his eye caught by a pair of crutches that tops the pile. That, he thinks, might make a strong picture. As he reaches for his camera, a car pulls up at the curb and a man hops out. He grabs the crutches and sticks them into his back seat. Stealing crutches at an eviction? How low can you go?

Hubbard hustles across the street. "Is this an eviction?" he asks

The crutch thief nods.

"Can you just take this stuff?" Hubbard asks.

"I guess so."

"Hey," yells a woman leaning from an apartment window, "leave it alone!"

Though he's caught red-handed, the man remains unfazed. "Do you need the crutches?"

She says no. The man hops back into his car.

"What are you going to do with them?" Hubbard asks.

"You hear on the radio sometimes that somebody needs crutches," the man says.

"And you'll give them to him?"

"Yeah."

Hubbard doesn't believe that for a minute, but he decides to play along. "Boy," he says, totally deadpan, "you're really doing good works out here."

Back in his car, the man who was quoting Holy Writ only minutes ago is now grinning at humanity's astounding capacity for venality. "Don't you see the humor in that?" he asks. "I mean, in a kind of grim way." IN 1976, JIM HUBBARD STOOD UP IN A meeting at St. Mary's Hospital in Minneapolis and said, "My name is Jim Hubbard and I'm an alcoholic." He hasn't swallowed a drink or a Valium since.

Slowly, he rebuilt a life devastated by his daughter's death and the divorce and drinking that followed it. While serving as UPI's Minneapolis bureau picture manager, he entered Hamline University and eventually earned a master's degree in liberal studies. He met Sherry Benson, a farmer's daughter who was working as a waitress. He handed her his UPI business card and said, "Gee, I'd love to take your picture." Thinking that was a pretty lame line, she brushed him off. But he persisted and she relented and he photographed her. The picture -- one of those corny shots of a pretty girl feeding ducks on a nice day -- appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune. They were married in 1977.

Hubbard had pulled his personal life together, but pictures of fires and crimes and politicians had ceased to thrill him. He longed to shoot something more meaningful than the usual wire-service fare. In December 1979, he took vacation time and flew to Thailand to photograph a Cambodian refugee camp for the American Refugee Committee. In a jungle hospital, he saw dying mothers nursing dying babies and he recalled again the pain of his own daughter's death. This time, he had to face it without alcohol. "I cried many times on that assignment," he says. "I swore when I left Thailand that I'd never be the same person again, that I'd never be interested only in making money and consumerism, that I would commit my life to social change."

That was a tough vow to keep. Hubbard returned home to a typically commercial American Christmas. As he watched his two daughters crawling under the tree, grabbing greedily for goodies, he began to weep, and Sherry wondered if he'd ever recover from what he'd seen in Thailand. But as months passed, he slipped back into the routines of daily life.

In 1982, he landed one of UPI's cushiest jobs -- photographer on the Washington political beat. No more cops and corpses now. Hubbard was shooting the press conferences and the parties of the country's most powerful people. It wasn't exactly exciting -- mostly pictures of middle-aged white guys in dark suits -- but it had its moments. There were days in the White House and trips on Air Force One and weeks spent lounging around the Sheraton hotel pool in Santa Barbara, Calif., waiting to shoot a "photo op" of President Reagan cutting brush on his ranch.

Hubbard toasted his hide to a golden tan in Santa Barbara, but the life style of the rich and famous soon paled. He felt like a cog in a huge publicity machine designed to produce and distribute pre-packaged images of the powerful. On the streets of Washington, he noticed other images -- ones he recalled from his childhood trips to Detroit's skid row, only now they were set against the background of the capital's most famous symbols. He started photographing what he saw and his pictures caught the ironic juxtapositions of the Reagan era -- a soup line in front of the White House, a ragged man encamped beneath a shop window displaying a book titled Class. The images weren't subtle, but they were undeniably powerful. They were printed in newspapers as far away as Finland and collected in a show called "Portraits of the Powerless," which was displayed in the Capitol and the Washington Cathedral before it traveled to art galleries, grade schools, universities, churches, bars and homeless shelters around the country.

Still, something inside him, a spiritual side he'd stifled for decades, remained unfulfilled. Since his return from Thailand, he had pondered the meaning of all the pain he'd photographed. Searching for answers, he read Gandhi, Daniel Berrigan and theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In 1983, he began studying divinity part-time at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, and his studies resurrected his boyhood desire to become a minister. But ministers are not made by part-time study, and in 1986, Hubbard faced a dilemma: He had to choose between his job and his studies. Though his work at UPI bored him, he agonized over the decision. He'd worked as a photographer for two decades and spent almost that long at UPI. He wondered how he'd support his daughters, Priya, 14, (from his first marriage) and Hanna, 8. He vacillated and wavered and discussed the issue over and over again with his wife. "Quit," Sherry told him. She had faith in his abilities and she figured that somehow, between her job as a waitress and whatever free-lance work he could find, they'd make it. "Just quit," she said.

In the summer of 1986, he did. He quit UPI to study at Wesley full time and to work as a drug counselor at the Community of Hope in Northwest Washington. And he found that Sherry was right: Though they weren't getting rich, somehow they got by. Much to his amazement, Hubbard found that there was a demand for the kind of photography he wanted to do. The Miriam de Soyza Learning Center in the South Bronx hired him to photograph the children of that ravaged neighborhood. The National Institute of Building Sciences sent him to several cities to photograph homeless people and the abandoned buildings that might be used to house them. World Vision, a philanthropic group based in California, hired him to photograph the poor in Chicago, Memphis and Mississippi. Best of all, Congressional Families for the Homeless -- a high-powered group of political wives who are sponsoring a photo book and traveling exhibition to be titled "Homeless in America" -- dispatched Hubbard to photograph evicted families.

Free of the constraints of daily journalism, Hubbard prowled mean streets in Washington and the South Bronx, and produced the most powerful work of his career, images eerily reminiscent of the famous photographs of the Depression. The man who'd left photojournalism in disillusionment to enter the ministry began to think that perhaps his real ministry was photojournalism. His pictures, he decided, could speak more eloquently than his sermons. Though he still plans to finish his divinity studies next spring, he doubts he'll seek ordination. "It's not really something I think I need to do," he says. Instead, he hopes to bring his pictures into the church, to let people see what he has seen, feel what he feels.

"I think the world can be changed through pictures," he says. "I'm changed by pictures. I'm changed by seeing the picture of that little napalmed girl running down the road in Vietnam . . ." HUBBARD LUGS A BATTERED METAL suitcase into the House of Ruth, a shelter for homeless women in Northeast Washington. It's "volunteer recognition day," and the management has invited him to exhibit his pictures. He extracts a pile of mounted photographs from the suitcase's chaotic collection of pins, tape, film cans and old coffee cups. Quickly, he tapes the pictures to a blackboard. Unlike almost any other photographer, he is utterly indifferent about the arrangement of the pictures. "I don't care about that," he says. "All I care about is the image. If I can throw them up on the wall and people say it captures some of the life on the street, that's all I want."

He stops hanging pictures and starts talking about his heroes -- Gandhi, the Berrigans, Mother Teresa, religious people who dedicated their lives to the poor. "I'm not saying I'm one of those people, but I've left some comfort, some security to do this," he says. "It's a rough way for me and my family to live and it's a little scary, but it's working. Being in on dramatic and traumatic experiences like these evictions enriches my life. I've been changing very slowly, but I've been changing."

Then, as if embarrassed to catch himself pontificating, he grins and shrugs. "At least that's what I've concluded right now," he says, laughing at himself. "Stay tuned. There might be changes later."

People are beginning to wander in and study his pictures. "These are beautiful," says one young volunteer. "They really capture a spirit."

One of the residents, a middle-aged woman who looks as if she's seen everything at least twice, disagrees. "You don't know what it's like," she says. "You really don't. You know why? Because you haven't really lived it. Have you ever lost your house and your kids?"

"Not yet," Hubbard says.

"Well, I have," she tells him. Then she turns and walks away.

Another resident, a blond in a low-cut purple dress, sashays in and takes a cursory glance at these photographs of the wretched of the Earth. "Nobody cares about 'em except God, I guess," she says. "God and a few other people."

She begins telling Hubbard her life story. She's been a movie star and a recording star and an inventor and the wife of several famous people. But she has fallen on hard times since crooked lawyers and bankers cheated her out of $100 trillion. She's smiling so broadly that it's tough to tell if she's crazy or just kidding.

Hubbard plays along, listening patiently and nodding solemnly, as if every syllable of this tale is gospel. "Gee," he says, deadpan, "you've really lived a full life."

The woman points at Hubbard's pictures. "This is horrible," she says. "This is ungodly." Fortunately, she has the solution to the problem: "I'm gonna drop a nuclear bomb. Clean 'em out. Tear it down to build it up. I'm gonna bring the Heavens down."

Hubbard listens for a while, then asks, "What country did you say you were going to drop the bomb on?"

"Africa," she says, "where the AIDS virus comes from."

"Oh," Hubbard replies, his face deadpan but his eyes twinkling. "You could really make a major contribution with that."

After a while, the woman drifts away. Hubbard grins mischievously. "I can just see your story now: 'Sensitive Photographer Urges Homeless Woman to Use Nuclear Weapons.' "

He laughs, then walks outside to the patio. Disco music blares from giant speakers, and a crew of cooks is barbecuing huge quantities of food for the residents and the volunteers. Hubbard heaps a paper plate with chicken and hamburgers and sits down to eat. Gazing around, he smiles. "I'd rather be here," he says, "than at a State Department function shooting pictures of George Shultz shaking hands."

Then he chomps into a burger and watches four homeless women dance the jitterbug. ::