Capturing images of homeless people through a camera is problematic and obscuring for several reasons. Most obvious perhaps is the fact that we tend to perceive photographs as direct representations of real life, which aids in their ability to unfairly portray rough sleepers. We think we are brought face to face with homeless life, yet from these images we learn little about these peoples’ lives, personalities or voices – what makes them human. A photograph mutes the subject in question, they instead fit into a particular idea that the photographer has in mind. Photography is thus like any art, it cannot simply render life with absolute accuracy. As much as it may try, the photographic image always reshapes life.
Nigel Shafran’s latest body of work The People On the Streets tries to subvert such discriminatory approaches to photographing the homeless through the lens. Instead of asking permission for an image to be taken of them, Shafran hands the camera from his hands to the homeless, asking each person living on the street that he encounters to take a photograph of him. While a lot of these images are captured in central London, there are also some shots taken in Paris making it more of an international representation. It is also interesting to note that Shafran does not pose much in these images. Many of the pictures are blurred showing Shafran, but also sometimes passers by in mid pace, a common view for those living on the street in these big, capital cities. People don’t tend to stop to talk or look at homeless people let alone spare them some change or food. In this sense, Shafran’s images are pretty groundbreaking. The subject is given the opportunity to break social class hierarchies and share their opinions, aesthetically, of what they tend to see day-to-day living on the street.
Nevertheless, while these images do give homeless people a voice, to a certain extent I would say these photographs at the same time offer a limited understanding of homeless life. If we were to look at these photographs without knowing its context or title, for instance, they have the ability to simply appear as street portraits of the photographer. We don’t really learn much about the characters, feelings, and experiences of these people, because as in any photograph, these aspects are muted, which arguably does victimize the homeless in The People on The Streets project. Shafran therefore cannot really move away from the fact that photography will always risk portraying homelessness unjustly in some manner even if the camera isn’t pointing at its intended subject. While the project itself is innovative in its portrayal of life on the streets, it still is engrained with a number of issues that should not be ignored.
Featured Image Credit: Donlon Books