Everyone who has engaged in street photography has at some time come across homeless people. It is a sad reality of our urban existence that some people will fall through the cracks and end up on the street.
On a cloudy afternoon earlier this year I was on Rupert Street in Soho when I spotted a group of people who were clearly homeless. One of them caught my eye and became the seed from which this new photo series ‘Outsiders’ was to grow. His name was Steve and it turned out we grew up only a few miles apart some 300 miles from London.
At the time I was experimenting with street photography using a Contax G2 and Ilford XP2 – a rediscovery of film so there was no opportunity to preview the shot. After a chat he agreed to let me take his photo which is below. It is my take on Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, 1969 by Don McCullin.
After seeing the results I was immediately drawn to the potential of doing a photo series on the homeless in and around Soho but these have been done to death and are often trite and exploitative. Any series like this needed a sound ethical basis so I quickly concluded that any photos had to be consensual and the series needed a clear purpose. It could not simply be a series of candid snapshots of homeless people presented like some sort of Victorian peep show.
I was fortunate enough to see Martin Parr the following month at a talk he was doing at the Offspring Photo Meet in Hackney and he was very clear that I needed to ask myself what I was trying to say when planning a series like this. I needed to ask myself the question “what are you hoping to achieve?”
For me the answer was obvious – the series should challenge our preconceptions about the homeless and encourage us to see them as individuals and if possible interact with them rather than pass by on the other side. The homeless in London are both visible and invisible at the same time. A mass of people who everyone tries to avoid seeing. A nuisance to be avoided. A cause of dissonance when they ask us for money.
They are all put by people into the same homogenised grouping “the homeless”. They are in the main not seen as individuals and their stories remain untold. As a whole society takes a dehumanising approach to these people many of whom are where they are through no fault of their own. Here but for the grace of God could be any of us.
So I decided that the basis of the series should be to take the subjects out of context and force the viewers to come to their own conclusions as to who they are looking at and who the person really is. I don’t want to display homeless people as victims but rather to highlight that they are not defined by their homeless state.
If I had told you that Dimitri (below) was an explorer rather than one of London’s street homeless your reaction to him would no doubt have been completely different.
This series is a work in progress and once I have enough exhibition-quality images I hope that there may be a possibility of getting it exhibited. Photographers like Edith Tudor-Hart have taught us that photography is a powerful medium for highlighting social inequality. A series like this cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the problems faced by the homeless in London but if it encourages just a few people to look again at these people and see them as individuals it will have been worth it.
This is proving to be the most challenging and rewarding series I have ever done. The people on the street all have their stories and often the hardest part of being on the street is being constantly ignored and treated like street furniture. The power of human interaction cannot be over-emphasised so next time you give someone some change (as many people do) please consider also giving them some attention and a few kind words. They don’t bite…