The Unrepentant Flâneur’s Guide to Street Photography Part 7
The Curious Case of Homeless Photography
The debate over whether or not homeless photography is the same as street photography hasn’t yet been settled. Most can probably agree at this point; however, that homeless photography is likely it’s own genre and potentially more closely associated with photojournalism than SP is. This means that homeless photography and SP are certainly closely connected.
SP that doesn’t feature the homeless is controversial enough. Homeless photography certainly increases the long-held ethics debate. Some street photographers argue that there’s no challenge in it; the subjects are seen as “too easy targets” as though the main purpose of such photography is to take risks in making aesthetically stirring photos, not establishing a meaningful visual context on the subject’s life story. Others say that it’s tired; many college and university courses in photography issues at least one assignment in homeless photography. All opponents agree that it’s exploitative.
Many shooters still; nevertheless, inspire others to accept the challenge or responsibility of capturing this taboo aspect of modern life. Many want tips on how to photograph the homeless. I think it’s inevitable that a flâneur with a camera will at least seriously consider engaging in homeless photography at some point in their overall pursuits.
I have never made homeless photography a specific project. I have always allowed it to become part of my street photography if it happened to go that way. That’s why I really don’t have too many of such images in my stock as other street shooters and photojournalists do.
I strongly recommend that photographers pursuing this genre prevent themselves from approaching it as though they were engaging in wildlife, advertising or fetish photography (and those too definitely have their share of ethics concerns). Just because the accepted photo jargon for things to be photographed is “subject” doesn’t mean that the subjects are just things to be photographed. Whether their circumstances are their “fault” or “choice” or not they are human beings, not fascinating creatures in some natural or artificial environment or objects to acknowledge fancifully one hour and disregard the next.
I made “Sign of the Times” on September 15, 2006. It’s not the first image I ever made of a homeless person or even a spectacular picture but after years of study it became one of a small number of reality shots in which I then thought, and still think now, signified a cusp in my ability to make socially conscious photographs with an improved deliberate personal drive to affect social change; not just make interesting or technically accurate pictures.
This change in me was a direct result of extremely very personal experiences like when I met a tragic young man named Josh (see story HERE), and others. These accumulated experiences, actually spanning approximately twenty years, are why I even began this blog series on applying photography to flâneurism.
The man in “Sign of the Times” was a panhandler who I had asked permission to photograph before doing so (this was a time when I was still shooting only film, so it’s not as though I could make a digital image and then ask him afterward while showing him the picture on the camera’s LCD). Of all the vagrants I had repeatedly seen in downtown Hamilton, I had never seen him before.
Face-to-face on the corner of Bay and King Streets, I took mental notes from our brief conversation that I would jot down later. I explained to him from the outset that I’m a local artist but expressing his residual fear that I was actually a news reporter he wouldn’t give me his name. He was concerned that if his name wound up in the papers, it might make it easy for the police to track and arrest him.
He said that he was “from down east”, suggesting any of Canada’s eastern maritime provinces where unemployment and welfare use statistics are typically high, and from where many head westward in hopes to find employment. The disheveled stranger told me that he had been in Hamilton for six months but had been homeless and panhandling for the past two.
Despite his misgivings about giving me his name, he was really eager to have me take his picture. This doesn’t happen with all homeless people. There are those who become quite adamant about you not taking their pictures. Never forget that each person is different.
I thought I was quite clear that I wanted to shoot him in action doing whatever he needed to do as he agreed to let me shoot as such but as I stood back to watch him and hope that he’d become even more used to my presence he behaved totally unnaturally. He even looked directly at me and tried to crack a smile for the occasion. I swear it took no more than ten seconds of me not raising my camera before he got mighty impatient with me for not shooting him.
Well, at least his anger was real, and at least his effort to make money on the street given his circumstances was real. I got a few shots.
Maybe he found his way back home, moved on or eventually died somewhere by now. All I can say is that I never saw him again after that day.
I wouldn’t call this a formula for approaching the homeless in order to photograph them. Every situation is as different as the temperaments of each individual. It simply didn’t go this way when I shot other vagrants, and not everyone who looks like a stereotypical “skid row bum” on the streets is even homeless.
I do recommend connecting with the individual in some personal way; a simple conversation in which you try to not come across as someone superior or threatening in any way, but for safety’s sake, stay acutely aware that some are unapproachable. It is a solid fact that substance addictions, mental illness, psychological and social disorders and antisocial behaviour can exist with any person in the public regardless of their social status or origin. Any self-serving or well-intentioned photographer could put himself or herself in immediate or future danger by engaging in homeless and street photography.
I can remember reading a first person account years ago about a photographer who, on his very first unguided experiment with homeless photography, encountered a man who wanted to be paid for his street portrait. I can’t recall if the picture had already been made or if the bargaining began prior. After the shooter agreed on the price, the vagrant decided that if the photographer was willing to pay it, then he was probably willing to pay a little more and a little more yet.
When the shooter hoped he was finally done with the man in the street, he found that he had to walk quite some distance out of his way in order to lose the stranger who followed on foot in order to see where the photographer lived. That was a close call for the photographer and perhaps his family. Just bear that in mind. This is the world in which we live.
Of course, not being able to ask for permission up front or even afterwards puts you in a position to decide if you should make a picture or not; and only you can decide if you’re going to photograph the subjects anyway, and live with whatever consequences may come.
Also, in your attempts to show that you’re not someone of superior social standard, keep in mind that you do not have to take a swig from the same bottle, can or jug that your subject may be drinking from if you are so offered a little taste. Decline politely. If, as a result, the acquaintance goes sour for your photography ambitions, just accept it and move on. Contracting Tetanus, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis and a wide range of other pathogens are so not worth the risk.
Here is something that I don’t encourage that has actually been done by some in the past. After speaking to someone impoverished for some while, obtaining their graces and finding out that they really aren’t as destitute as you possibly originally thought they were it would be a sickening gesture to ask them to do anything that would make them seem more disadvantaged than their circumstances are.
Originally from Yorkshire, England, Anton Brookes has been a New York City based photographer since 2007. He is a powerhouse freelance editorial shooter (specializing in fashion, portrait, architectural, venue and street photography) operating under the name Mock Turtle Moon. He is also the Photographic Director and Co-Founder of Anton Brookes Studio. A 200sqft unit in a four-floor brown bricked building at 430 West 14th Street, Suite 204, New York, NY 10014; just a bit south of Washington Street. Prior to relocating to the US, he was the Agency Director for Stagecoach Theatre Arts Ltd.
I am in awe of the homeless photography that he posts on his photo blog Lust & Rum (lustandrum.com).
He doesn’t seem to ever invite his subjects into a studio to make creative head shots as other sharp homeless portraitists do. All of his work has the traditional candid or semi-candid on-the-street look but with very contemporary compositional and post-production qualities that can easily appeal to a flâneur photographer or someone who needs to be stimulated to acknowledge the circumstances that he has recorded. Additionally, images of the homeless are not all that common to NYC street photography. It occurs only sporadically with street shooters, so to see so much of it coming from just one photographer from the city really helps to make his work stand out.
I don’t know how anyone could look at his homeless work and not be awoken to think of ways to better understand or perhaps try to corral any issue related to poverty anywhere in the world. I have wanted to interview Anton for a long time.
Anton, thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts, experiences and images with me for this post.
He says that he’s only been engaged in homeless photography for the past couple of years.
“I found the contrasting elements of a magnificent and opulent city with the devastatingly poor who occupy some of its streets too compelling not to photograph it. I really love living in New York City but it does give you a headache sometimes.”
There are some professionals that do homeless photography who at one time in their lives were down and out homeless. The vast majority of homeless photographers; however, have never experienced this level of abject poverty in their lives. I have never been truly homeless but there was a time that I came extremely close (no, it wasn’t a “starving artist” scenario; I will elaborate more on it in a future post). While some choose to be homeless, the prospects were frightening for me. Maybe it was self-indulgence or self-pity but I did wish that someone would take a camera and tell my story, and help me get out of those circumstances. This is a most extraordinary situation because I’ve always been a very proud and private individual. I wouldn’t normally want to share my personal setbacks for the world to see. This is one of a number of tremendously life altering experiences that motivates me to include homeless photography among my street photography. I now have a mission to try to open a few eyes without being preachy; which more often than not proves to be counterproductive. From all this, I had to find out from the outset of the interview why he started photographing the homeless, and who he intends to reach with his efforts.
“It was not my original intention to focus on the homeless of New York City but they are hard to ignore due to the vast numbers on the streets here. I try to approach each photograph without judgment or intentional bias. The last thing I want is to provide a portfolio of images that has the appearance of a finger pointing freak show.”
“I can honestly say that I have never been homeless but I am acutely aware that anyone of us are just a step away from it should the fates conspire against us. I think there is a social programming that makes people shy away from what they don’t understand. It is easier to condemn, ignore or ridicule than actually do something to help. Most of the homeless I photograph are intelligent, polite and decent people who have taken the wrong turn at some point.”
Anton says that he doesn’t employ any aesthetic techniques in order to make images have impact on observers.
“I guess after a while you see everything through a lens, If you know what I mean. I find I am constantly framing everything I look at with or without my camera. Without is rare,” he’s makes a point of adding.
“Composition has to be instant so you have to have an amazing amount of luck sometimes. I am frequently stunned by something in the background of a shot that I never noticed while taking it but it being there actually turns a simple image from bland ‘snap’ to dynamic ‘photograph’ because it is included.”
Now, everyone knows how difficult it is to do street photography effectively without asking subjects to complete a release beforehand. Yet there are individual sideliners and conventions that insist that it be done or the work be abandoned regardless if it has any potential to affect real social change. Of course I had to ask Anton if he always obtains permission from his subjects before photographing them.
“I wish I could say yes every time, but it is not always possible. Some photographs are instinctive and you have a fraction of a second to see it and capture it so I would recommend that with any street photography you shoot first and ask questions later. When time and circumstances allow, I do ask permission from the intended subject. It is a highly sensitive and personal thing to be photographed by someone and can be a bit unnerving, especially a stranger pointing a lens into your face without warning. So I understand if they say no. At the beginning — rather naively, I tried to get release forms filled out in order to comply with standard photographic procedures but after a couple of form signings from ‘Superman’, ‘Barack Obama’ and a drunken, bushy bearded ‘Princess Leia’ I gave up.”
There it is! The issue is not cut and dry. For both approaching the homeless to photograph them and to make images that touch people; nevertheless, Anton does recommend the following techniques:
“I think you have to be respectful and honest about why you want to photograph them. It is important that they are aware of your intentions and understand that you are not looking to humiliate them or present them as an oddity. Saying that, on a few occasions I have been given permission to photograph someone who then proceeds to grin from ear to ear and gives the impression that they are extremely happy with their situation however bad it may look. I guess we are programmed to smile for the camera from an early age. I think the eyes and/or the composition are the key ingredients to a photograph that will have the ability to touch people.”
I’ve marketed a small amount of homeless photographs strictly as an Art for Charity venture. 100 per cent of net proceeds from the sales, rentals or leases of the images were to be donated to a charitable organization of my choice that is genuinely committed to poverty and homelessness reduction initiatives; a truly colossal challenge. Interested persons were invited to contact me to inquire which charitable organization was targeted at any given time to receive the proceeds. I really didn’t think that there would be many takers, if any, but I wanted to at least try. Sure enough, there were absolutely no bites.
“It is a hard place to be as a street photographer,” says Anton. “If you capture a situation or person that turns out to be a heartbreaking image or perhaps controversial, what do you do with it? If you publish it you can be accused of exploitation, if you keep it as a private image then the whole point to your work is compromised. I think you have to be comfortable with your own reasons for taking the photograph. In my case I decided to publish my images as a way of highlighting the situation on the streets of New York. I have a few plans on what to do with them that will hopefully bring public awareness and may actually change and educate attitudes to the less fortunate. I will keep you updated on that.”
Despite the fairly well-known controversy of homeless photography, Anton has never experienced an automatic negative assumption from others that he only aims to photograph the homeless to either reap some financial or non-financial benefit or to sadistically humiliate the destitute.
“I have been overwhelmed by the response to my work. I fully expected some negative comments or at the very least a complete lack of interest but I am pleased to say that everybody seems to ‘get it’. I have been told that I photograph in a sympathetic and caring way. That is the biggest compliment and reward I could receive.”
It’s so important and certainly comforting to have that light in the tunnel of controversy; that approval from others. To be honest, being that comfortable and approved of can unfortunately lead to us feeling too secure in the notion that we are in the right in our approach to things. Not just in photography but with anything in life. It is important for us to question our motives from time-to-time, so I had to ask if Anton had ever come across homeless people that he decided to not photograph, even when he had the chance to.
“Rarely, I think that whatever the situation it needs documentation however graphic or distressing. There are realms that the public should not be exposed to, but the photographer? Never. I think we all set our own limits as to what we release. I have a mass of photographs that I would never make public.”
“I always drop a few dollars to the people I photograph by way of a thank you for their time. If they are sleeping I place it somewhere they will find it when they wake.”
Even where such legal directives don’t exist some shooters venturing into homeless photography have expressed concerns that a little coinage may be needlessly put toward buying booze or narcotics. To that, I advise that compensation doesn’t have to be literal cash.
For years, I used to walk around with a $5 Tim Horton’s gift certificate in my wallet in case I came upon an occasion to offer it to someone who looked like they could use it. They were not redeemable for money. If you went to a Tim Horton’s with one, you could only use it to by food. After the restaurant chain switched to gift cards, it made it easier for me to walk for moths without the card deteriorating in my wallet.
On the subject of danger, I steered the exchange to contemplate the physical hazards of pursuing homeless photography; whether from the homeless or from opponents of such work.
“Occasionally I do get an angry response, but you have to realize that people find themselves on the street for various reasons. Alcohol or drug abuse, mental illness or just plain unlucky. You never know when you approach just what their reaction will be to you. I have been threatened and screamed at in the street, it is all part of the environment I choose to shoot so I have to accept that. I often find myself out on the streets at all hours of the day and night and it can get a little menacing sometimes. I know of a few homeless people who even have a price list for their services. $5 for each photograph and $15 for video. I never get involved with that kind of transaction.”
Anton says that he has never found that vocal exponents of homeless photography take real action to 1) help homeless people establish an identity and dignity that they need or want, and 2) work in any way to combat poverty. He points out that he doesn’t personally know any other photographers who photograph the homeless.
“But then I don’t personally know any other photographers who photograph the homeless so I have no idea if they are actively involved in action of any kind.”
His thoughts on using better, equal and worse ways than this genre to address the matters of poverty and homelessness:
“Keep highlighting it, keep trying to bring it to the attention of people who can change things. The downside is that when distressing images become frequent and widespread, they can lose their impact and are accepted as the norm. The worse would be to ignore the whole thing altogether. I would like to say that from what I have seen the social care in America is appalling. If you can’t pay for it then no one has any interest in supplying it. Don’t get old, don’t get poor and don’t get sick. A shocking evaluation of one of the greatest countries in the world, but there you have it.”
Anton informs me that other than from his blog and other online sites, he really doesn’t receive too much positive feedback for his work in this genre.
“I shoot fashion for the cash, both studio and runway. So my audience is divided alarmingly. From that wasteful world of crass self indulgence to the reality of the hand to mouth existence of the street. It is an almighty chasm to cross as a photographer but one I enjoy immensely.”
His thoughts on his greatest disappointment and achievement from photographing the homeless:
“I am constantly disappointed by my own attitude to it. I wish I was warm and fuzzy but I tend to go into overdrive when I see an image that I think (he emphasizes, ‘I think’) needs to be captured. All thoughts disappear and the situation and the consequences of my actions mean nothing as the need to ‘get the shot’ takes over. I guess that is what a photographer is all about.”
“My greatest achievement? Getting the shot.”
His other recommendations or pointers for anyone getting into homeless photography:
“Learn to shoot a little more discreetly. Most of my street images are taken by holding my camera arm by my side and just clicking in the general direction of the subject matter.”
He’s talking about a technique that is idiomatically called “shooting from the hip”.
“You will learn to set the distance, speed and aperture with one hand without looking. All it takes is some practice. Well, a lot actually.”
“It is not easy but I have got it off to a fine art now. I can even do it on full zoom and still frame it pretty well. I use a Canon 5D mark 2 for my professional work but for street photography I use my little Canon Rebel (I love this camera). Small, great quality, no bulky battery pack and a standard EFS 18-55mm lens. It is perfect for this kind of work.”
If you’re inspired to engage in homeless photography or want to objectively see how the other half lives, see the work of Anton Brookes. From doing so, you may even be the one to develop real solutions to real problems.
You can easily get to Lust & Rum through my blog roll under the Photography subcategory.
Thank you again, Anton for contributing to this post.
If you develop a failsafe system or near failsafe method of photographing the homeless, AND get others to really care about the issue, I’d love to hear it.
If through the experience, you and any of your subjects are able to become true lifelong friends; this is not impossible although quite rare, then my hat is off to you.