A few years back I knew a Big Issue seller called Martin. He always had a kind word, a smile and always wished everyone well. He & I would chat most days. He was ex-military man who had never really come to terms with life on Civvy Street but had found a way to re-establish his own sense of independence by selling the Big Issue. I only knew him for about 3 years before he died suddenly one New Year’s and I often find myself thinking of him this time of year as I know that despite the hardships in his own life, his attitude taught me a valuable lesson for my own.
Of all the mobile photographers out there, let's be honest I'm not exactly known for my street photography. Most of my shots are deserted or sparsely populated at best. I bow the skills of @bradpuet and @last_jedi and I have been moved to tears by portraits by more traditional photographers like Don McCullen.
So you’re perfectly entitled to ask what gives me any authority to talk about street portraits….. well frankly, nothing. Of all the thousands of shots I have taken, I have only taken a few of strangers in the street and even fewer of those sleeping rough or begging. So these are just my personal opinions.
Homelessness has always been a problem and continues to be as we start 2013. I have been increasingly asking myself why I have shied away from this as a photographic subject. Is it because I'm a coward and don’t want confrontation? Is it because it can feel that when you take a homeless person’s photo, you’re taking something from someone who already has nothing? Is it because it feels more of an invasion of privacy when somebody has none? Is it because showing the reality of homelessness is just a bit too uncomfortable for many? Or is it because every time I have shared a shot of someone homeless or begging, I can’t escape the thought that the photo won’t actually change anything? I've secretly taken the photo, I've given them a handful of change and I've walked on and continued with the rest of my life.
I think it’s a bit of all of these reasons and more. So you've taken a photo documenting homelessness. So what? It’s nothing new; they’re not the 1st person to have slept rough and sadly won’t be the last. How is taking a photo and publicly sharing a photo of someone whose circumstances denies them any privacy going to do anything …….. and you’re probably thinking what the hell has this got to do with the story about Martin?
I never took Martin’s photo. I wish I had – not as some token gesture, pretending that it would change in his or other homeless people’s lives, but a tribute to the change he effected in mine. I suspect that before we can share any lessons in social responsibility, we have to learn those lessons ourselves first. I wonder how many of us have taken a photo of a homeless person without having the common courtesy of finding out their name & spending just a few moments to talk to them? I know I have.
I don’t know what this guy’s name is. He was sleeping, so I did my usual trick – I took the photo, left a small handful of change by him and walked on. I can’t promise that I’ll be sharing more photos of the homeless but one of my New Year’s resolutions is that if ever I do and share them then I will also share that person’s name and as much of their story as they’re willing to share with me.