In pixels

It was often a potentially ‘lose-lose’ situation – take a picture and risk being offensive, or don’t take the picture and lose the moment, that crucial moment when a person’s face is saying something greater than the sum of their spoken words.

There are two common – and unpleasant – circumstances in which homeless people typically have their photos taken. One is in the custody suite of a police station, when they’ve been arrested for whatever (begging is often enough to do it). The other is when a member of the public, a passerby, says they will give money if the homeless person ‘performs’, in a way that is belittling or humiliating (‘Go on then, do a jig . . .’) and then that person takes a snap or a video on their phone which they put on the internet. It was described to me by one victim as the ‘dancing monkey trick’.

So, small wonder that associations with picture-taking weren’t exactly positive to start out with and I had to be careful, respectful.

Portrait of a man looking pensive
Brock trying to explain his life to me
Donna sitting on the pavement, Shaftesbury Avenue
Donna on Shaftesbury Avenue
black and white closeup of homeless man's face
Patrick did want to talk, but would not be recorded

My camera was an important part of the action and the stories and it needed sensitive managing. It was now always in my hand, wherever I walked, so that everyone would see it as a part of me, and not some threatening game-changer that I’d whip out at the last minute and blind-side people with. It had to seem ordinary, friendly and not something that would drastically alter the dynamic.

It was often a potentially ‘lose-lose’ situation – take a picture and risk being offensive, or don’t take the picture and lose the moment, that crucial moment when a person’s face is saying something greater than the sum of their spoken words.

Friends kept asking me, ‘How did you convince people to pose?’ The answer was, ‘I didn’t.’

Ever.

Girl showing her torso, covered in small wounds
Old wounds and new infections
Black and white photo of homeless man and whiskey bottle
Steve drawing me a card while a mate pours his whiskey
Black and white photo of a ferret in a bag
A young homeless girl’s pet ferret, Troy

Was what I was doing ethical?

I did take photographs of people who were asleep or passed out without their permission, but only if they were totally unidentifiable, even to people who might know them. I was harangued a couple of times by members of the public who shouted things like, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself, he‘s asleep for crying out loud’ or ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ I was never given a chance to reply but I would have said that these kind of images can be important: they can affect sensibilities, can make people see familiar things in a different way. I took lots of them because there are lots of homeless people and I wanted people to know this.

Close up of a woman's hands with long painted nails
The only thing that Jasmine would let me take a photograph of – her hands
Black & white photo closeup of hands holding toast
Homeless people eat a tremendous amount of bread
Closeup of a girl's hands holding lots of coins
I was surprised to learn that girls got a lot less money from begging than men did

Whilst many (about two-thirds, I’d say) of the people I approached over the weeks would not let me record them, and some went on to refuse permission to take their photograph, not once during a conversation that was agreed on and underway did anyone say, ‘Look, do you mind not pointing that at me. Get it out of my face and just listen to what the fuck I’m telling you?’

Credit to them all.

 

 

About Tamsen Courtenay

I write. I take photographs. I worry and I laugh - both of them rather a lot. Inner stories, secret stories, are what fascinate me. My book, FOUR FEET UNDER, chronicling the lives of 30 homeless people in London, is now published, and it's had really terrific reviews. It was supposed to help change how people think about the huddled, damaged souls living on the streets and it seems to be doing its job. So, I am content.

Let me know if you want to say something ...

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