Homeless photography tips

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by justin_zepeda, Nov 18, 2010.

  1. Hi all,
    I was just wondering if anyone had any tips or advice on photographing the homeless. I know I don't want to take your cliche portrait that portrays sympathy or any photograph that gives off any mood of that nature. I want to photograph the homeless in a way that can let an audience perceive them as a normal human being and not as an outcast or someone lower in our society. I'm just not finding ways to successfully get this idea across, although I know it would be difficult. Any help is appreciated.
  2. Justin,
    I'm not going to offer any advice myself except to say "Welcome to PN" and "Please be prepared to hear some harsh questioning along with any good advice you get". The concept of homeless photography comes up every so often here (and on other photography forums) and can elicit some fairly strong reactions and opinions.
    To our regulars,
    Keep it mellow. You are all smart and can make your point without being a jerk.
  3. OK, I'll be the first to jump in.
    You may have difficulty "finding ways to successfully get this idea across" because you "want to photograph the homeless" rather than "a normal human being". You wish to portray them as such which is good but you still identify them, even unintentionally, as a different subject matter.
    Photographic technique is not the issue. Its the mindset, benevolent as it is. When you shoot them with the same intent and approach as any other "normal human being" and not" to get a message across" for an audience, THEN the message will get across.
  4. I'm just not finding ways to successfully get this idea across, although I know it would be difficult.​
    Justin, out of curiosity, what "ways" came to mind? I can only think of one way to achieve your goal, and that is to spend lots of time getting to know the subjects on a personal level. How well you know them, may be the determining factor of whether you get your message across to the audience.
  5. Just be prepared to have your photograph taken in return ;-)
  6. Step 1: declare bankruptcy. 2: divorce your sig. other, leave your children and pets. 3: throw away your 'nice' clothes, keep something warm and durable... pay attention to shoes! Good shoes are your best friend. 4: stake out a spot, refrigerator boxes are at a premium, I suggest you find an old tent from Wal Mart or something. Keep a P&S camera, of course. 5: get to know the people around you, earn their trust. 6: if you still feel like taking pictures of 'the homeless', you'll understand how to portray them as human. Whatever you do, don't take your cues from Mel Brooks or Eddie Murphy or any of the Hollywood portrayals of 'forgotten men'.
    Alternate: leave the camera at home, spend a few months volunteering with soup kitchens and charities that supply winter coats and sleeping bags for the homeless. Go to step 5 above.
  7. I like Jody's recommendation a lot. That would the approach I'd start with if I were going to cover that
  8. As a person who has been working with homeless folks since October of 2000, I have learned and seen allot in all that time. In addition to my personal ministry with those less fortunate than I, I am also a volunteer and donor to the Union rescue mission. (Skid row in L.A.).. Having said that, it took me 10 years to even think about photographing them and when i did, I turned it into a positive. Even at that, I only have a few. Those that I do have I know pretty well. I hope your motives are well intended and not for personal gain. Here are the most important things that I have learned when dealing with them.
    1) They are no less of a human being than you or I.
    2) God loves them the same as you and I.
    3) Always ask them their name. I can't stress how important this is because it will give them a sense of identity. Do not forget their name. I always write it down in my prayer book and pray for them.
    4) Don't preach to them. They hear enough of that. What they need is clothes, hygiene products, chap stick, tooth brushes, tooth paste, socks especially. Food is also important, but not the most important. Most can feed themselves. Let your good deeds do the preaching.
    5) If you take their picture, be sure and go back and give them a print. You would be amazed at how much this will mean to them and again, call them by name....
    6) Listen to what Jody said.....
    More info here. click and scroll down to Julian and work your way down.
  9. You might check out the book by Robert Bergman "A Kind of Rapture" and also go to the Smithsonian's National Gallery of Art podcasts for a great interview with him--as well as a reading by the author that wrote the forward to the book (not really much about the work, more her reading of the poem that opened the book). By the way, there are a lot of great podcasts there, including many on Robert Frank's The Amercians.
    There is a YouTube video someone made of another of his exhibitions in New York, just search his name there.
    Here is a link to a discussion of a photographer's work who has been photographing the homeless for years. This thread started to have a tone that often arises about exploitation and the photographer did come and join the discussion to explain what she does and why: http://www.flickr.com/groups/pndissidentcafe/discuss/72157624427215889/?search=andrea+star+reese
    The most important thing, IMO, is that if you are going to do it, have a purpose and actually do it. Taking some photos here and there doesn't do anything for anyone. If you are serious, be very serious.
  10. Well I have been working with this gay homeless couple by the names of Rich and Rey both 49 years of age and a african american woman by the name of Wilma. I honestly have spent time with my subjects. I like to get to know who I work with before I even take a photograph of them. I have gotten to know these people who I work with well, up to a certain point, but I just don't feel like I'm photographing them succesfullly and the way my intentions are.
    Most of the people I have worked with don't have many activities to do during their regular routine day. I realize that more now so then before after time spent with them. Either they observe or pan handle or fly signs, which I understand.
    I just still get that same sobb story photo. I realize that their life is not easy and I don't degrade or look down upon them like theyre any different from me. Maybe just my idea is ignorant or not realistic. I just don't know how to portray them in a different way. I don't want people to view them that way.
    Unfortunately, yes these people live a life they don't like and some mostly forced into. I just can't find a way to do what I want without going to extreme measures and making them pose or do something they do not want to do. It would not make the photo real and the emotion real it would be fake. And I want the emotion and feeling of the viewer to see the photo of this person as a normal regular human being. After all each person who has lived a life of hardship started out somewhere like everyone else.
  11. But I agree with all of you, maybe I should spend more time helping and spending time with my subjects, rather than photographing. It would most likely help me understand how to do it affectively.
    Thanks to all for the responses by the way, all great. I appreciate.
  12. I think John, B. Christopher, and Jody S. all gave really good advice. Most practically, I think if I were going to do this I would follow Jody S.'s advice. Another possibility is to ride the night owl busses if you have those in your area. You will find a whole world there.
  13. If you are trying to portray them as a "normal" person then the only thing that should be setting a photo of a homeless vs a non-homeless person apart is the outer appearance of the person in question. In other words, you are looking to find those non-homeless behavioural qualities (i.e. forget what they look like, look for their expressions) and capture them on film. With that in mind, you should be able to just take a picture of them as you would any other person, which goes back to one of the first responses regarding your personal mindset. You need to get over the idea that they are a homeless person. Spending a lot of time with them and getting to know them is a way but it will probably take a while before you are on a level where they are good friends to you and not just a "homeless person you happen to talk with".
  14. I just don't feel like I'm photographing them succesfullly and the way my intentions are.​
    That's the problem. You have intentions. If you had none, knowingly or even approaching subconsciously, you would have wonderful images of your friends with the full spectrum of emotion with other aspects as incidental but, maybe useful, afterthoughts. Instead, you have images of your homeless friends.
  15. First of all, are you doing this as paid assignment? If so, check with what they are looking for. Often times publications don't allow for a lot of wiggle room creativity wise. Find out what exactly they want and judge for yourself how creative you can be.
    Second, forget the notion of portraying them as normal people. Portrayal is something actors do. Your concern should be to photograph them as they are. Are you yourself homeless? If not then they are different from you, me and most other people. Are you mentally ill? If not, most of them are different from you, me, and most other people. Are you addicted to dugs and/or alcohol? If not then most of them are different from you, me and most others. See where I'm going? They are different. Does this mean they don't deserve the same respect bestowed upon others? Absolutely not. Does this mean they should not be treated with dignity? Of course not. Therefore unless you are being retained to produce a body of work, I suggest you really think about why you want to go down this path. There are so many photographers taking homeless people photographs that it seems to have become some sort of rite of passage to anyone who, after picking up a dslr, suddenly wants to be a photojournalist. So really think about your motives. Many such photographers conveniently sidestep the exploitive nature of what they are doing by calling it "compassionate social concern" photography.
    Now then have I photographed homeless people? Yes, I have. However on these occasions I was asked to. As someone who decided early on to avoid the homeless photography route, I was a bit surprised at first when these opportunities arose. However, obviously something about my previous unrelated work and/or my personality made these organizations feel that I was the right person for the job. It was while working on these that I discovered that homeless people are in fact not like the rest of society. They may have been at one point in their lives, but they are not now in the present and photography is about what is right now. At least that is the way it is for me. They have made choices in their lives that have got them to where they are. Sure there are those that blame capitalism or or some other social/political movement. However, I believe that we are responsible for our own destiny. As you sow, so shall you reap as the old saying goes. So again, I suggest you seriously examine your motives. If you really truly concerned about these folks (and you are to be commended if you are) then take a more grass roots approach to it: Donate food, clothing, personal hygiene items, etc to your local shelter. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Offer to tutor those who may need a GED to look for a job. I think doing these will have a more positive effect then being just another homeless photographer.
  16. You've had some sound advice already which I wont repeat.
    You want to:
    .......photograph the homeless in a way that can let an audience perceive them as a normal human being and not as an outcast or someone lower in our society. I'm just not finding ways to successfully get this idea across​
    Ok how about photographing people who used to be homeless but have now got their lives back together and in every respect look exactly like the rest of us.
    Dont underline the differences, underline the similarities, what we have in common - and the human qualitites of tenacity and resilience. Make this a piece of work thats REALLY of value to people who are homeless, or to the rest of us who look on them with disdain/disgust/empathy/sympathy/love/devotion/despair by showing that the desperately difficult journey for many people in that situation can have a destination. These stories are important ones - for us, maybe for other homeless people, certainly for the subject you are photographing.
    Of course that raises the immediate problem. They dont look like homeless people. How do you get around that major visual stumbling block. That's the challenge for you.
  17. david_henderson

    david_henderson www.photography001.com

    I'm not sure I get it. You want to make homeless look like normal human beings. Well why don't you just shoot normal human beings? I mean if you were successful in your objective, would we be able to tell that the subjects were homeless? And if we could tell the subjects were homeless would you have succeeded? I might be inclined to spend a little time considering my objective in more detail or at least how that objective can be articulated. IMO you might not have a real idea yet.
    Taking John's point a bit further, if you can identify individuals who were homeless and who now aren't (big if, that one) why not take them back to the environment they lived in whilst homeless and photograph an obviously conventionally homed and jobbed person in a homeless environment? Or equally interesting but just as difficult, shoot clearly homeless people in the spaces they inhabited before becoming homeless? At least in both these cases the type of imagery required in clear from a one-line description.
  18. You also might consider looking for work yourself at jobs likely to employ the homeless or recently homeless. If you yourself worked at such a job for a while, you would gain some insight into the character of the situation that these low paid workers struggle with that you would not acquire by simply showing up one day at a work site with your camera, asking some casual questions like "who here is homeless?", and then snapping away with your camera.
    You can find such jobs at employment agencies that supply day laborers for manual labor for jobs such as assembly line workers, traffic flaggers, etc. These jobs typically pay 8 dollars an hour, but are much in demand among workers struggling with homelessness or near-homelessness.
  19. Javier you are right on target. well said
  20. Hey Justin,
    You got lots of sound advice here- I am not going to add anything else. But there was a recent article in B&W magazine about Bill Jay and his new book "Men Like Me." You may want to check it out, I feel Bill did a great job of photographing people in his neighborhood that he had gotten to know over the years, and the photos are great. Certainly not your usual homeless portraits/grungy street life stuff. The article in B&W was good too.
  21. My advice, don't shoot pictures of homeless people. Haven't they been photographed enough without another photographer invading there privacy just to photograph the same old tired cliche.
  22. as Marc already implied many of them suffer from (severe) mental disorders and have a long history of substance abuse. Some of them can get extremely aggresive at an instant for no reason that's apparent to you. Watching out for your own safety is perhaps the best tip anyone can give you.
    Shooting homeless people is frowned upon sure, I see it here and elsewhere on the internet but I think there's also a lot of hypocrisy floating around. Or are it all just tourists that I see shooting out there and posting photos on the internet?
    The most important thing, IMO, is that if you are going to do it, have a purpose and actually do it. Taking some photos here and there doesn't do anything for anyone. If you are serious, be very serious.
    John A​

    a piece of very good advice
  23. Justin, it sounds like you have already given a lot of thought and time on this project. I think, as long as you continue to have a genuine desire to photograph those around you, and are honest with your photography, it is the best you can do. The photographer's story of contemplations, the struggles, achievements and failures, the joy and suffering, and everything else he experiences in creating the picture, is very much part of the picture. A photograph is only "worth a thousand words", not the entire story, as it were.
  24. Maybe start with getting to know "the homeless" as individual people first rather than a social stereotype? Do some volunteer work. Hang out and have conversations. Buy cups of coffee and lunches. Demonstrate an interest. Go back to the same places on a regular basis. Be friendly and, when possible, helpful.
    I find that when you take time to build relationships, even short ones, the photos come much more easily
  25. My personal opinion?
    I think it goes into the same box as"photographing dead people". Sure, its a meaty subject, but I wouldn't do it. Now perhaps you might consider volunteering in one of those vans that goes around at night giving homeless people clothes and food. Then, when you are known and trusted by both their clients and the other volunteers, you might take a small camera along, ask politely and then do it.
    Apart from that, I don't think the "make more awareness, to attract more assistance" excuse stands up to scrutiny.
  26. Again, it seems you goal is very doable, but to do it and have it be meaningful, I think you have to get to actually know your subject. This is typical in documentary work which is more of how I see your project. This isn't street photography. Perhaps a good project would be to get to know a group of people, and document what a day in the life, or a week, or a month, that type of thing over a period of time. You will have to gain people's trust and spend time if this is not going to be more than cliche grab shots or, giving them money to pose. If you want to show them as "real" people, then you have to show their lives. IMO. I would think that's a story. You might look at Mary Ellen Marks, or Eugene Smith(his doctors series) or Bruce Davidson's East 100th St. I guess I'm assuming you're not aware of some of these great documentarians, but if you aren't there's a lot material that's been done, like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang's work from the great depression and the dust bowl. I don't care what anyone else says, I think such a project could very interesting, especially if you remember that these are real people and you have to actually be able to hold them in your mind as such. Not just "homeless" people.
  27. I think it goes into the same box as "photographing dead people"​
    So much for being seen as normal people. Photographing homeless people for the sake of photographing homeless people generates questions but treating people as so helpless that they can't or shouldn't make their own decisions such as whether to agree to be photographed?
    I guess i"ll jump back out now.
  28. Spearhead

    Spearhead Moderator

    I agree with John, there's nothing that puts photographing homeless people and dead people in the same category. Pretty unpleasant thought there.
    FWIW, I do photograph dead people, but almost never photograph homeless people.
  29. My little quips above should not be construed as being somehow against the idea of photographing homeless people. Well, certainly not today, now, in 2010. There is a story that desperately needs to be told, and photography perhaps above all else was what brought the Great Depression into the public consciousness and contributed to societal change that made millions of lives better over a span of many decades. I don't have a crystal ball and I don't know how the current homelessness crisis will go, but I know I have tried in my own way to tell part of that story.
    If I had any advice, given what you've told of your situation, I would say that photography as a medium isn't a neutral observer. You can either stand behind a camera and take photos of a subject, in which case you will be acting as an interpreter/storyteller choosing how to construct a narrative, or you can make the photographs an active collaboration between subject and artist, and give the subject a say in how the story is to be told.
  30. I photographed this homeless guy in Jerusalem last year. He bummed a smoke from me and then asked me to take his photo. He was VERY photogenic and I ended up taking a few shots.
  31. With no disrespect I say photograph their pain. They are not the norm. Show the world the truth.
  32. Not sure, Jodys, mine, several others and Michael's statements are mutually exclusive.
  33. There seem to be a lot of well fed looking homeless people over there. Here, its not common and when you do see it, one is shocked and dismayed. The guy in the photo above looks pretty well fed to me.
    We take it very seriously and its not tolerated at all. There are plenty of shelters and hostels here and you can get 3 means a day at them too. But to see what we call a
    "derro", here, means usually drugs or mental illness and thats not what we should be photographing...not without some care and asking permission.
  34. This is always a tough subject for many people, technically it should be no different than shooting anyone else. If they are in the public domain then they are fair game as are children, the handicapped etc. That being said I do feel personally that shooting them is like shooting fish in a barrel, fairly easy to get away with and almost always produce portraits with a lot of character (so long as you work with the light). Shooting the elderly also produces the same results.
    Most of the time questions like this are less about photography and more about the ethical and philosophical undertones of shooting the less fortunate. No one can give you permission for this as no one has the authority. In the end, you either do it or you don't. Be prepared for people to hate it, love it, and be completely indifferent to it.
    close and wide is always better, make them feel comfortable and don't take advantage.
  35. “I want to photograph the homeless in a way that can let an audience perceive them as normal human beings”
    “There by the grace of God walk I”
    They are normal human beings what else would they be? ...they just a part of the human condition as we all are. Unfortunately, they have drawn a bad hand in the game of life, and have found hell, without a good book or something else to send them there.
    Myself, I photograph them as part of life just the same as anything else. Interesting and telling are the bywords of my photography.
    Now if I was to do a Documentary I, would want to be a part of them, just as good War Photographer is part of the troops......
    Living and breathing and maybe dying with them so they can offer a plate of truth....
  36. Hey Allen, nice to see you post again..cheers.
  37. The homeless are your model. and approach them as such. Ask permission and offer to pay them something in return for letting you take the picture. Just because they don't have a home does not make them less human.
  38. >>> Hey Allen, nice to see you post again..cheers.

    Yeah! Hey Allen...
  39. Hey Allen, nice to see you post again..cheers.​
    well, you can make that three times ;-)))
  40. My advice in this case is the same advice I give people who want to repair their cameras: If you have to ask don't do it.
    You write: "I want to photograph the homeless in a way that can let an audience perceive them as a normal human being and not as an outcast or someone lower in our society."
    I think that expresses a noble intention. But right now it is only a notion, not a concrete idea. As such, it is so far a sociological or literary aspiration. It's like Milton wishing to explain the ways of God to man. First you need words, then pictures. At least as things stand now.
    So why pictures and not words? Ask yourself that question. How will pictures convey your intentions better than words?
    Photographs may be objective but they are viewed subjectively. How do you make people see what you want them to see? And once they see what you see, what do you want them to do? Ask yourself these questions. Do nothing until you have answered them and are happy with your answers.
    Let me help you. You know the expression "fourth wall"? It comes from theater. It is the imaginary wall that separates the front of the stage from the audience. Well, there are fourth walls in society between people are well. Our invisible fourth walls are based on things like class, wealth, fame and other things. They are not supposed to exist in a democratic society but they are there. There is a fourth wall between homed and homeless people. Homed people are afraid of breaking down their fourth walls because they are afraid. They fear criminality from the homeless and, importantly, they fear becoming homeless themselves. That is the fourth wall I believe you want to break down. But once you have broken it, don't expect people to become active humanitarians. Some will, some won't. The ones that don't at least will be less bigoted. If you can at least make people less bigoted you will be able to pat yourself on the back.
    So do your homework.
    You do not need to impoverish yourself. That would be counterproductive. Once you are homeless you are not going to be interested in explaining the homeless. You'll be using up all your energies to survive. Jack London was a rich guy when he disguised himself as a poor man to do research for People of the Abyss. (He had known poverty, but that's another story.) Having said that, you will have to change your life in some way to tell the story you wish to tell, whether it will in the end come out in words or pictures. Once you are determined to carry out your project you will need to break through the fourth wall yourself and get involved with homeless people in some way. How? That is for you to figure out.
    While you are sorting things out, read all you can on the problem of homelessness.
    You need not rush. Poverty, unfortunately, is not going to go away that quickly. Who knows: Once you find your bearings you might end up photographing me as I tell you through broken teeth how I was once a Leica photographer.
  41. "There seem to be a lot of well fed looking homeless people over there. Here, its not common and when you do see it, one is shocked and dismayed. The guy in the photo above looks pretty well fed to me.
    We take it very seriously and its not tolerated at all. There are plenty of shelters and hostels here and you can get 3 means a day at them too. But to see what we call a
    "derro", here, means usually drugs or mental illness and thats not what we should be photographing...not without some care and asking permission."
    where i live (Canada), mental health, addiction and homelessness are all intrinsically linked. a study from 2009 discovered that 80% of women living on the streets deal with a debilitating mental health issue every day. the numbers, regardless of gender, are quite staggering.
    there are loads of services. you can eat 3 meals, 7 days a week. you can pick up a clean rig and travel around on a free bus pass.
    where the disconnect lays is in our understanding of the issues. with that said i say go photograph. talk with people. have coffee and make friends. the more dialogue and contact between the separate stakeholders the better.
    only you can determine what your motivations are. you will suffer many critics with a plethora of opinions. don't let that deter you. if it is something you care deeply about then go forward.

Share This Page