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.
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."
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."
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