How do I photograph, help, and respect the homeless in my community?
May 17, 2008 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Hey MeFi, long time listener - first time caller here. I'm looking for guidance on how to help out the homeless in my community, further my photography career, create awareness, and do this all with the utmost respect.

I've had this idea for a bit and now I feel really compelled to bring it to action. I want to go out into my community with a camera, a recording device, and some compassion to interview and photograph some of the homeless that most people look through every day. I'm pretty sure that my local weekly will help me to publish these photos and brief stories and I think it would be a great way for me to overcome some fears, take some great photos, and hopefully help these less fortunate people by causing awareness in the community, as well as providing them with some sort of 'thank you' that will make their lives a bit easier, however momentarily.

So to cut to the chase I have a few questions:
1. How do I approach this in the most respectful manner possible?
2. What can I give these people? Preferably something that can be donated by local businesses and in a large enough quantity that I don't have to only give it to those who agree to be photographed, interviewed, and sign a release.
3. What questions would be the best to ask?
4. Is there anything missing from this equation?

Thanks so much for all of your help! (I am leaving for the day now, but I am anxious to check in on all of your sagely advice tomorrow morning!)
posted by JRGould to Human Relations (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any personal experience with this, but there is a person on flickr who does just this and who does it in exactly the kind of way you are talking about. the respect and care that goes into the pictures and stories is clear. Maybe you could contact them and ask what they've learned by doing it:
posted by missjenny at 8:19 AM on May 17, 2008

Remember that no two people are alike. "Homeless" is a category not a person. There are individuals who happen to be homeless. Each of these people has their own problems and stories that have led them to this point in their life. This also means that each person may have different expectations about your project. Some will take umbrage, some will be happy with alcohol money, some it might play on their mental illness in some fashion.

The homeless may have issues but they are not stupid and frequently their long experience with police or social service providers has made them adept at spotting ignorance and bullshit. If they feel this is some kind of Homeless Safari, forget it.

As for what to give them, I would try to get gift cards donated to them from the local Starbucks or coffeehouse. If they congregate in a particular area there will be shops and places that they frequent or would appreciate something from.

This might be difficult if you don't have any relationship with these people. Is there a homeless shelter you could volunteer at? Local social workers and volunteers who already have their feet on the ground among this population? If there is they will likely know a great deal about the local homeless community, and might have persons they could suggest or who be willing to be interviewed.

Without some sort of entree into this world and community, your sudden presence may seem exploitive and arbitrary. There are networks of relationships within homeless communities and word of you will spread for good or bad.

As someone who has worked within homeless populations, I think doing this project along side of or in aid of the local charities, shelters and social agencies that these individuals use is probably the best way to go. Donate photographs for these agencies to use at fund raisers or to decorate their office. Donate your skills as a photog to improve the visual resources or improve the image of these agencies.

It's a difficult thing to take photos of subjects and have them remain subjects, within the object and aesthetics of a photograph. Just be respectful.
posted by MasonDixon at 8:48 AM on May 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

I think you have to be very very careful, and keep in mind that you may be speaking to people who are not in the right mental state to make an informed decision with regards to giving consent to publish information and pictures of themselves at what may be the lowest point of their lives.

You may have the best intentions in the world but no matter what you do, there are going to be people who view this type of thing as a more privileged person building their professional career by exploiting the homeless. I'm not trying to be snarky and I know you're approaching it with compassion, it's just that I've seen it done many times before, with very mixed results.

Check out Hope in Shadows for an amazing example of photography with the homeless/disadvantaged residents of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside as subjects. The photographs are taken by fellow residents, with cameras given to them for free. The calendars that are made from the photos are sold on the street with half the money going to the vendor (usually a homeless person) and half to the very cool non-profit that organizes the whole thing
posted by vodkaboots at 9:27 AM on May 17, 2008

I've hit on just about all of these questions in previous AskMe's about homelessness, working with and/or volunteering with the homeless, and if IIRC also a similar question about photographing the homeless (it's a very common subject for both photojournalists and students). Try digging through some old posts on the subject, there's already a lot of good stuff here.
posted by The Straightener at 11:21 AM on May 17, 2008

If I were you, I would also spend some time first volunteering at a shelter or a soup kitchen before you swoop in with the camera. It will help avoid the impression you are doing this to get fame and not to actually help people.
posted by schroedinger at 2:27 PM on May 17, 2008

Seconding schroedinger above, on not coming in with flashes blazing, as it were. I have never worked with the homeless, but have worked with other marginalized groups (rural indigenous groups and in slums), and this is rule one: the cameras come out only after you've been interacting, and people know what you're about, and you ask them if it's okay to get out the cameras. In this case, it means you get a chance to have conversations about the topic ("yeah, I'm really into photography...") that demonstrate passion and compassion.
posted by whatzit at 4:51 PM on May 17, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the input everybody. I think it's pretty clear that I should start volunteering at a homeless shelter or something similar, build relationships, and then see if people would be interested in even having their picture taken.
posted by JRGould at 10:03 PM on May 17, 2008

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