Housing crisis

There are currently estimated to be 320,000 people in Britain recorded as homeless according to a report released in November 2018 by the housing charity Shelter, an estimate which by their own admission is conservative. Shelter works not only with providing support to rough sleepers but also offers advice, support and legal services to people who are struggling with unsuitable accommodation and bad housing, as well as campaigning to end homelessness altogether.

Their latest report on the housing crisis in the UK shows an increase of 4% on the 2017 figures. That’s equivalent to an additional 36 people being made homeless every day.

Many people think of homelessness simply as people sleeping rough on the streets. Attitudes are often accompanied by assumptions about begging, mental illness, substance abuse, or even that people deliberately choose to live on the streets.

What people don’t generally associate with homelessness are the less obviously noticeable issues caused by bad and inadequate housing, especially in major urban areas like London, where the housing crisis is at its worst. Barely affordable rental prices, coupled with cuts in welfare and a refusal by many private landlords to accept tenants claiming housing benefit have forced many working people, including families with young children in to temporary accommodation. Temporary accommodation which is often unsuitable and ends up being long term.

The fact is, anyone can become homeless and it’s not just an issue that affects the most marginalised in society.

Over the last couple of months I’ve been working with Shelter to photograph people all over the UK who have been affected in one way or another by issues surrounding housing and homelessness. The people I’ve met all had their own stories to tell and have been affected by circumstances which could affect anyone at any time. I met a family with five children living in two rooms in a Travel Lodge. I met single parents living with their children in single rooms. Single parent families facing eviction from the hostel rooms they were living in, facing the prospect of rough sleeping. I met a family with two children who’d slept rough for one night, now living in a single room. A wheelchair user housed by the council in accommodation with too many stairs and no disabled access. These were all people who’d had jobs and stability but whose circumstances had forced them into their current predicaments.

The portraits could be of anyone in your daily life, your neighbours, friends, colleagues, your family. The faces are those of normal, everyday people, like you and me. They’re not incoherent, drunken beggars, they’re people with ordinary lives, with jobs, with families, with dignity.

However, when the media report the issues highlighted by Shelter’s report, they largely rely on lazy stereotypes of homelessness to illustrate the story, preferring to show stock images of anonymous rough sleepers or their tents, instead of the real faces of the people who are affected by this crisis. Perhaps this reflects the difficulty people have in putting a human face to the issue - of empathising with people affected by homelessness. Perhaps it’s easier to dismiss people as anonymous strangers, instead of recognising them as individuals. Among the few media outlets covering the report which didn’t simply use stock imagery were the BBC and the London Evening Standard who actually linked the story to real people. Most others, even the Guardian and the New York Times chose to ignore the personal angle and stuck to statistics, government policy and quotes from politicians and ministers, keeping the personal realities very much at a distance.

This gallery shows some of those people I photographed for Shelter. The point I’m trying to make is that there are real people behind the statistics. Real stories and lives that are affected and they deserve to be acknowledged, not simply reduced to a statistic.

Tube People

About a year ago I was on the underground and my attention was drawn to the man sitting opposite me. He was totally absorbed in what he was doing on his mobile phone, and seemed completely oblivious to anything around him, including the man who had just entered the carriage and was now sitting directly opposite him. As a photographer and being interested in people I decided to take a portrait of him on my phone.

I didn’t ask permission as it would have fundamentally altered the situation and the moment I wanted to capture. I guess I’d probably have been refused anyway. There are of course those who would argue that I should have asked first, but I believe that street photography and candid portraits are an entirely legitimate form of photography. Unless those images are being used with a view to commercial gain or are associated with a particular political view or a product endorsement, photographing people in public spaces is a valid form of a photographer’s craft, a way of seeing the world and recording a particular slice of life.

That first image, the first one in this little series, led me to repeat the exercise on subsequent journeys and slowly developed in to a kind of personal project almost every time I’m on the tube.

The project is all shot on my iPhone - it’s the perfect camera to provide anonymity and that’s what I soon realised this project is all about. I quickly recognised that what I was doing was trying to explore the sense of anonymity in what is in effect a very intimate setting. Often it’s worth shooting with a gut feeling and then analysing the subconscious thinking behind the image later. Underground trains in London are shared public spaces where people retreat in to their own private spaces, mostly through electronic devices, where people rarely engage or connect with each other, often in very crowded carriages. We travel together for a short part of our journeys and barely notice the people around us, who they are or what they’re doing. That strikes me as quite a nice metaphor for life.

In some instances I’ve clearly been rumbled, but I’ve only once been challenged. I was asked if I knew the person I’d just photographed and when I tried to explain the project I was cut short. I respected the person’s objection and deleted the image.