As heartbreaking as it is, you can't walk far in any major city without noticing there is a homeless problem in America today. Most just choose to ignore it. You look away, and for a second or two you get involved in a conversation, or act as though something across the street has captured your attention. As Photographers, we can choose this path, but as Street Photographers, it's my opinion we shouldn't. Street Photography, for as long as it's been around, has always been about documenting place and time. It is our job as Street Photographers to continue to document the place and time in which we live today; but how we go about this is what I'm focusing on in this post.
The homeless on our streets seem to be a constant form of discussion in the forums, groups, and social media platforms we all visit today. There is a feeling that reverberates around the community of Street Photographers that photographing homeless people on the street is too easy, or it's exploitative. Most Street Photographers view them as an easy target for our craft. In my opinion, photographing the homeless problem in our cities is probably the hardest subject to address in street. It's not easy, not if you do it correctly; which is why most simply avoid it.
As a Documentary Photographer, you choose how your audience views your subject. Crop in tight, and you tell a story about the person you are photographing. Shoot wider and include a woman in an expensive dress, carrying an expensive handbag, and wearing expensive shoes strolling casually past a homeless woman in rags begging for change, and suddenly the whole narrative changes. You go from telling a singular story about a person who is down on their luck, to a story about opposites. A juxtaposition between the wealth and the downtrodden. Catch this story in a contrast of light and shadow, and you expand further on that story by casting the homeless into the deep shadow, and positioning the wealth in light.
As photographers, we already understand how we use light, shadow, and composition to tell a story; so it's not hard to see how we'd use these concepts to exploit a subject down on their luck. Is the story of the downtrodden a powerful story, an easy subject for this kind of story? Of course it is. But is this the story that should be told? Is it the true story of our homeless subject? In that story, the homeless isn't the subject. It's the contrast that is the story. That is the exploitation of the homeless. Still a true story in our society today, but an exploitive story toward our homeless subject.
Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that it's all Street Photographer's duty to tell these stories that need to be told. As Photographers we all decide what subjects we will shoot, and as Street Photographer's we are constantly choosing how to approach and present these subjects to our audience. We choose the stories we tell. But, if you're avoiding the homeless because you feel it's exploitive, then examine your approach to photographing this part of our society. Examine the work of Suzanne Stein, Sam Wolson, or Huan Qingjun and how they each approach this subject matter to tell the story, with out insult.
This is something I struggle with all the time, and it's why you don't see it a lot with in my gallery. But please don't see the homeless as an easy target in Street Photography. They are only an easy target if you choose to portray them as the downtrodden, the dregs of our society. If you choose to tell their story, the story that truly matters, they are the hardest subject of all in Street Photography. If you view them as human subjects, rather than symbols for the homeless; what kind of images can you make?