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overthinking photography: on representing homelessness & social change | community

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

From the making of Assisted Self-Portrait by Ben Evans, Anthony Luvera, Residency, 2006–2008.

The all-pervasive and rapid nature of photography as we experience it virtually via our phones today - means that images may often be seen, but perhaps not really looked at or considered. Photographs do not just document the world around us, they influence our attitudes, behaviours, actions and understanding which all play a significant role in shaping our culture, politics and society.

So how might we use photography to help us to understand an issue within society in order to help us further social change for the better?

People who experience homelessness live on the margins of our society and are a serious topic of public concern. Unfortunately, homelessness is a bleak reality of contemporary urban life, an issue all too common to those in their local town or city, and as a consequence, those experiencing homelessness have featured heavily throughout photography’s history, leading us to question the friction in power dynamics between a photographer and their subject and authorship versus participation.

So, what intentions might a photographer in documenting those challenged with homelessness and what issues can complicate the subject?

Often the depiction of people who are homeless within photography can be complex and even the most well-intentioned photographer can inadvertently perpetuate a voyeuristic, exploitative way of looking that further acts to dis-empower those they are capturing and sometimes even begin to fetishise the suffering of their subjects.

Many street photographers and journalists photographing homeless people believe they are seeking to ‘tell the stories’ the homeless people they photograph, who’s stories are often of immense adversity. However, assuming to tell somebody’s story for them, can further act to disempower them and disregards their own agency.

Self-assisted portrait by Ben Evans

One of the issues people that are homeless perpetually face is that they’re seen as a monolithic group with a common experience and narrative.

Conventionally, the way homeless people fare under the gaze of photojournalists is one that merely invests in a person as a symbol for a particular condition, rather than as a human-being and nuanced individual.

There is an assumption that if you’re in public, then you have essentially given implied unconditional consent to be observed and the problem with that is, for those who don’t have any choice but to be in public, consent to be observed is not implicit, they literally have nowhere else to go.

A good example of a photographer whose work attempts to subvert damaging narratives surrounding homelessness is Anthony Luvera. Luvera is highly conscious about harmful tropes that tend to accompany the representation of people facing homeless for example the preoccupation on the biography of the individual, pinpointing the things that ‘went wrong’ for them and is keen to disrupt this tradition, acknowledging that “homelessness is a structural problem that is a product of the way our society is organised”. He attempts to subvert the usual conversations surrounding homeless that place an onus on an individual by instead bringing justice to how these problems are discriminatorily replicated by wealth gaps within our society in the first place.

During his community projects where he supports homeless services with duties like preparing and serving food, Luvera will often begin to meet people and when the conversations naturally arise he’ll discuss his work in photography with the people he meets, answering questions and inviting those who are interested in photography, to take a camera away and meet with him for frequent workshops to chat about the photographs they take.

He inspires participants to capture the things that interest them, while he aids giving technical advice on using the cameras. He then works with the participants to produce assisted self-portraits in locations significant to them. The completed projects exhibit the photographs alongside the editing process, and photographs of the subject and him working collaboratively.

Self-assisted portrait by Odette Antoniou

The quality I really appreciate about Luvera’s practise is in the way he doesn’t claim total authorship of the photographs, he acts as a technician, providing support for how to use the cameras he provides making it feel like a genuine collaboration where the individual who’s self-portrait it is, is named as an equal to the photographer, rather than as an unsuspecting subject. This alternative approach subverts traditional photography practises by enabling the subject to assume an active role in the decision-making about how they are best represented.

The people within the projects are portrayed with dignity and more truly aligned with their own self-perception, which is often not at all helpless, but quite the opposite, and stands in stark contrast to the tradition of a photographer’s assumed narrative of a subject’s experiences projected onto them.

Which goes to show that if you are attempting to empower a group of marginalised people through photography, the very last thing you should do is leave them out of the conversation about their own representation.

From the making of Assisted Self-Portrait by Odette Antoniou, Anthony Luvera, Residency, 2006–2008.

Credits - Anthony Luvera for featured photography examples

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