A new series of portraits by Rosie Holtom challenges pervasive stereotypes of the homeless, portraying residents at a London shelter in a more positive light. Here, Lily, 21.

Sandy, 20. "I felt a huge disconnect between the interesting people I'd met at Shelter from the Storm throughout my years volunteering there and the stereotypes we constantly see depicting homeless people," Holtom tells Co.Design.

The photographer took 13 of the shelter's residents to a studio and asked them to dress and pose exactly as they would want to be seen.

Sai Yee, 22. "I spoke at length with the shelter's guests so they would trust in the ethos of the project, want to be involved, and trust me not to exploit their situation but to take ‘real’ photos of them," Holtom says.

Jim, 55. “They're not defined by the fact that they're homeless."

Emmanuel, 22. You’d never guess just by looking that the subjects of Holtom's portraits lived on the streets.

Terrencio, 26. You might peg them instead for track stars, models, suburban dads, or musicians.

Caroline, 40. “I think we all know what someone sleeping rough looks like. Positive imagery is more powerful amidst the misery photography we get bombarded with. People are desensitized to that now,” Holtom says.

Brandon, 21. “Homelessness really can happen all too easily to people from all walks of life," Holtom says.

Angel, 39. This could be you, or your neighbor, or your uncle, the photographs suggest.

Glen, 36. The subjects anonymously told their stories, which also challenge preconceived notions of poverty. Their struggles arose from conflicts with corrupt landlords, or trying to escape abusive relationships, or fleeing violence in war-torn countries.

Patrick, 57. Shelter from the Storm offers access to detox and rehab for drug-addicted residents, but just as often, they are dealing with women fleeing sex trafficking, or victims of torture.

Ruth, 36. "Now the shelter is my home," said one subject. "I’m working and I’ve made friends."

13 Portraits That Humanize The Homeless

The homeless are usually depicted as addicts and criminals, which reinforces negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding poverty. But a stunning new portrait series of guests at a London shelter challenges those ideas.

We're all familiar with stereotypes of the homeless: they're often assumed to be addicts and criminals, mentally ill, and possibly dangerous. Ads for food or clothing drives might show a bedraggled person huddled under a blanket, a genre that lets viewers see the homeless as not quite fully human. But a new series of portraits by Rosie Holtom challenges these pervasive stereotypes, portraying residents at a London shelter in a more positive light.

Holtom, an animator by day, has volunteered at Shelter from the Storm, a night shelter for the homeless in north London, for four years. "I was inspired to start this photography project because I felt a huge disconnect between the interesting people I'd met at Shelter from the Storm throughout my years volunteering there and the stereotypes we constantly see depicting homeless people in London, especially in the run-up to Christmas,” Holtom tells Co.Design.


Images: Courtesy of Rosie Holtom

You’d never guess just by looking that the subjects of Holtom's portraits lived on the streets. You might peg them for track stars, models, suburban dads, or musicians. “I felt it was important that the project be collaborative," Holtom says. "I discussed it at length with the guests so they would trust in the ethos of the project, want to be involved, and trust me not to exploit their situation but to take ‘real’ photos of them.”

Holtom took 13 of the shelter’s guests to a photo studio and asked them to dress and pose exactly as they would want to be seen. “I made it a fun and enjoyable day, just let their characters shine through, really,” Holtom says. “I think we all know what someone sleeping rough looks like. Positive imagery is more powerful amidst the misery photography we get bombarded with. People are desensitized to that now.”

Many of the subjects told stories of how they became homeless–-stories that, like these photos, challenge preconceived notions of poverty. “Homelessness really can happen all too easily to people from all walks of life,” Holtom says. Shelter from the Storm offers access to detox and rehab for drug-addicted residents, but just as often, they are dealing with women fleeing sex trafficking, or victims of torture.

“I escaped violence in Eritrea to find a better life,” one subject told Holtom. Another subject was running away from her husband: “He got very angry when I started going to college and doing well. He would drink and get very angry. I am worried he might find me. I have changed my number but still I am worried,” she said.

Another subject became homeless after being kicked out by a corrupt landlord: “We had this long-standing argument because we had no hot water for 21 days. In the end we refused to pay rent until he fixed the hot water, thinking he’d fix it, but he just barged in, in the middle of the night, came upstairs and hauled us out. We couldn’t even get back in to get our stuff. He changed the locks. I lost most of my stuff. No deposit to start again. He got away with it.”

Image: Courtesy of Rosie Holtom

Now that the people in these photographs are staying at Shelter from the Storm, where they get hot meals, a warm bed, and counseling, Holtom reports that their lives are on the up. "Now the shelter is my home," said one subject. "I’m working and I’ve made friends."

The portrait series brings to mind a recent project by nonprofit organization Degage Ministries, which created a timelapse video of a homeless U.S. Army veteran undergoing a drastic makeover, from unkempt to clean-cut and business casual. Both projects make viewers question the assumptions they might unconsciously make about the thousands of people living on city streets—this could be you, or your neighbor, or your uncle, they suggest. “I wanted them to be viewed in a positive light,” Holtom says of her subjects. “They're not defined by the fact that they're homeless.”

[Images: Courtesy of Rosie Holtom]

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16 Comments

  • piblogger

    This takes on an added dimension given my
    recent interview with David Raether who went from being part of the
    writing team for the hit show Roseanne to being homeless . . . he said
    that while there are those amongst the homeless who are addicts,
    there are a surprisingly large number like he was, who wear suits and
    carry a briefcase who have no home to go to at night. (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/j...

  • Tweenwolf

    Why are you guys quoting dictionaries and Bible passages? Just be better people and realise not everyone volunteers to have their lives turned upside down. Just hope the industry you work in doesn't collapse, your better-half doesn't unexpectedly pass away, or that you yourself aren't subject to illness or abuse beyond your control. And Guest, you're a jerk of a person.

  • Viet Nguyen from Mako Haus

    I read an article this week on Business Insider about a guy testing the theory of "give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime" by showing a homeless how to code. It is interesting to see how the homeless got into it and is now building an application to be launched. Here is the article:

    http://www.businessinsider.com...

  • Suleman Ali

    More than this the homeless should be given access to twitter, blogs and facilities to make videos which can be posted online to try and help people to empathise with what they are going through. We have to find ways of reintegrating them into society, and that means making the rest of us conscious of them in as many ways as possible.

  • Guest

    Your comment is one of the more ridiculous things I've read lately. First of all, most people are already conscious of the homeless. You can't walk down the street without being surrounded by them asking for money. They come into restaurants and want to shake your hand while you're eating. Consciousness doesn't equate to caring. Second, they can blog and tweet and make videos all they want, but that doesn't mean anyone will read or watch it. And who is going to furnish them with that technology -- taxpayers? Don't the homeless have more important things they need? And shouldn't the taxpayers have their money spent in better ways?

  • kat karsecs

    Having homeless people around doesn't make people conscious of them--more often it makes people work harder to be Unconscious of them. That's the problem Ali's idea was trying to address. As a former homeless person, I can attest that 'there but for the grace of God go I' is not at all what you think. It's the beginning of empathy and compassion, humanity and spirituality. If you don't believe it, you should spend some time being homeless, and see how invisible you instantly become, and how THAT is one of the worst, most debilitating parts of the experience. I guarantee it will open your eyes to many, many things that you currently don't seem to have a single clue on.

  • Pablito

    Just wish the homeless away and they'll be gone, Guest. Stay classy. And make sure you only help yourself, since you are the only one that matters in this world.

  • Heeld

    I am truly saddened by your lack of compassion for these people and the human condition. All the homeless surround you asking for money? I doubt they surround you. With your attitude, I can only hope that a tragedy never strikes you and god forbid, you need anything from anyone. Who are you to say who will watch what and develop a solution to help the people?

  • Bill Smith

    With the impending collapse of several companies, the expression "There, but for the grace of God, go I" seems very relevant.

  • Heisenberg6586

    That phrase, as innocuous as you may think it is, is instead quite offensive because of the implicit statement it makes. God didn't bestow His grace on those who are homeless, huh? When 26 people get killed in a school and someone says "God saved me", isn't their an implicit statement that God killed the others (allowed them to be killed)? Isn't there a bit of elitism going on for the speaker, that someone they've been "chosen" or "selected" by God? Think about this a bit and you may see how insensitive, unthinking and cruel statements such as "There, but for the grace of God, go I" are.

  • Bill Smith

    The definition of grace is "unmerited favor." That is, I don't deserve to be spared such a fate, but somehow I've escaped it. Praise God! Out of that gratitude of being spared, I should be thrilled to respond lovingly toward those who are not as fortunate.

    We all suffer in different ways. Nearly all the bad things that happen in this world occur by the hand of another human; most of the remaining bad things occur indirectly or out of lack of action from our fellow humans.

    The world is a rich place. There's more than enough food for everyone, but we're too selfish to provide for others.

    If 26 people are killed in a school, most likely it's at the hand of a human gunman, set on that course by parents who didn't care enough to raise their child properly, or a society that allowed him to fall through the cracks. "Am I my brother's keeper?" Yes, Jesus would say; Yes, you are.

    God gives His grace to us, so that we might learn how selfish we are, that we might bless others because we are grateful that we have been blessed. Instead, when He sent us a message of hope and salvation, through His Son, Christ Jesus, we (not the Jews, not the Romans, ALL of us) crucified Him because we didn't like how guilty His truths made us feel. We are the same today, and it's proven by how many homeless we have, how many orphans, how many murders, rapes and injustices.

    Here's the difficult lesson to learn. God allowed mortal men to kill His only Son, like a lamb to the slaughter. That shows just how evil we are, and just how merciful He is. He is giving us time for our evil to develop, for us to choose whether we will be base, or choose righteousness. That also means that some are selected to suffer during this short life, but they will be highly rewarded in eternity.

    I can't say it better than this scripture:

    Matthew 25:31-46

    31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

    34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

    37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

    40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

    41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

    44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

    45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

    46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

  • Heisenberg6586

    Thanks for the sermon, Bill. Not only have you missed my point, but you continued the same line of reasoning that I find offensive, as well as added multiple other offensive statements.

    First, I understand that grace is "unmerited favor". I'm the son of a minister and grew up very familiar with Biblical doctrine. What YOU fail to understand, however, is that although you did nothing to deserve God's grace in this or that situation, YOU still received His Grace while SOMEONE ELSE DID NOT!!! I don't understand how you don't see the implicit in your statements. The word "favor" implies a "favorer". The word "unmerited" implies something one doesn't deserve (presumably based on their actions or inaction). That whole concept of merit and favor REQUIRES two cognizant and willful actors, the favorer and the favored. Regardless of merit, if God chooses to save one but not the other, there can only be two conclusions: that God willfully chose not to save the second, or that God was unable to save the second. I think the main reason I have problems when people talk about how God saved them from this or that situation is the implicit statement that God chose NOT to save the others. Yes, there are many people who are homeless and need help, but the fact that they are homeless is NOT directly related to the inverse of why you're not. The statement which gives God's Grace credit for NOT being homeless (or insert whatever "bad" thing here) is offensive and unthoughtful.

    Regarding your assertion that most bad things that happen to people are caused by the actions or inactions of other people, that's flat out wrong. Most humans on this planet have died due to natural disasters (floods, droughts, fires, hurricanes), chronic diseases (cancer, cardiac issues, pneumonia, diabetes), or infectious diseases (viruses, bacteria, protozoa). Most suffering on this planet for millennia has nothing to do with other humans actions or inactions.

    Regarding the rest of your dogmatic sermon, I couldn't help thinking that this must be how cognitive dissonance manifests itself. Or maybe I'm wrong and its just plain ignorance and dogmatism.