The homeless are largely invisible in society. Some are on the streets, but passersby rarely acknowledge them.
Centre 454, a community ministry of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa, and Ottawa photographer Onno Kremers hope to change this through photographs that show the faces and tell the stories of the city’s homeless.
“So often when we walk down the street, we close our hearts to people because it’s an easier thing to do,” said Kremers. “What I wanted to do was to strip away all the grittiness that you would associate with this community, their environment.”
Using the power of the lens to alter public perception, Kremers wanted the portraits of the homeless community and its support system to pay testament to the shared human condition-that we all seek to be seen and treated with dignity-and to elicit recognition that the faces staring back could belong to a friend, relative or neighbour.
“There are many smiles, many tears and most of all, so much hope and determination [among the homeless] to triumph over circumstance. It was these stories that moved us to create Illuminated,” said Jennifer Crawford, the executive director of Centre 454.
Illuminated, an exhibit of black-and-white photographs held at Ottawa City Hall on Feb. 10, capped the 60th anniversary celebration of Centre 454.
Centre 454 developed the project in collaboration with Kremers, who had been photographing the centre’s past charity concerts for about a year.
In the summer of 2014, Kremers diligently photographed participants for the exhibit. Earning their trust was important, he said, noting that for some, it meant getting comfortable in front of the camera.
To help ease the participants’ concerns, Kremers provided cameras for them to experiment with, and set up a wall where some of their photographs could be shared. “Once we started doing that, the demand really grew sky high…Everybody wanted their photo on the wall,” he said, adding that some wanted to send their photo to someone
Their willingness to have their portraits and stories shared with the broader community, Crawford explained, is borne out of a desire to help break down stereotypes associated with the homeless. “A lot of our participants wanted to give back and help the centre raise awareness and help eliminate some of the stigma that surrounds [homelessness],” she said.
At every step of the process, Kremers and Crawford explained the exhibit’s intent to participants and encouraged them to stipulate the conditions of their involvement, making it possible to withdraw or limit their participation. Conscious of past projects that could be perceived as having exploited the homeless, Kremers said the centre is cautious about how the images can be used. Only two portraits-of a public health nurse and a homeless man who passed away-are available to the media to publish.
For the most part, Crawford said, “participants were excited to help us illuminate the faces that come through our doors.” In the end, she said, only two people declined to have their images featured in the exhibit.
Featured alongside photographs are snippets of the participant’ biographies as well as images of support workers.
“They were brutally frank about their circumstances and about how that had happened to them,” said Kremers about how much many were willing to share about their personal lives. “There’s a real understanding and awareness about their own condition.”
Kremers said he felt the exhibit was representative of the range of experiences the homeless face, such as coping with mental illness, family separation and the joy of securing a job.
If the photographs had been presented without any narrative to provide context, many told Kremers that the portraits of the homeless would have been indistinguishable from those of the ministry and support workers.
Public response to the exhibit has been significant, but what mattered most to the organizers was the positive response from participants themselves, said Crawford. “They could not believe how beautiful they looked. One person said, ‘Wow, that really shows me and I am gorgeous!’ ”
BY THE NUMBERS (Source: Centre 454)
6,705 men, women and families with children sought emergency shelter in Ottawa in 2013
11 per cent of Ottawa’s population (101,235) lived in poverty in 2010
9,717 households are on the waiting list for the city’s social housing
Beatrice Paez is a multi-media journalist whose reporting spans international development issues, politics and arts and culture.