British photographer Lee Jeffries does more than just document people living on the streets. He immerses himself in homeless communities across the United States and around the world. At the end of his stays, Jeffries shoots a photo of the people with whom he’s bonded. The results are portraits that leave a lingering impression. In the mostly somber images, Jeffries connects the space between his lens and their countenance. He’s moved past what you see in stereotypical photos of homeless people: the blanket, shopping cart, a pile of belongings. But he hasn’t moved past the despair and isolation.
“I document emotion. Whatever that emotion, however that emotion manifests itself,” Jeffries said. “Yes, the majority are melancholic and lonely in nature, but maybe that’s because I’m personally maybe attracted to that emotion.”
The result is a series of black and white photos reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s photos of migrant workers during the Great Depression: stark, haunting and piercing.
Jeffries partnered with Union Gospel Mission (UGM) for the public exhibit, “Lost Angels.” Earlier this year he traveled here from Manchester to document those who are unsheltered. Over the weekend several of his portraits of people from Seattle and other locations were projected onto the side of buildings downtown, First Hill and South Lake Union.
The show consists of rotating photos interspersed with local statistics accompanied with music. UGM President Jeff Lilley said the purpose of the show is to remind people of what we’re facing literally and figuratively. Literally in the sense that the show is outside at night when the temperature drops, which provides a window into the harsh conditions the 5,485 who are unsheltered endure. And figuratively as the images are covering expensive buildings, presenting a glaring dichotomy.
“We have this wealth. At the same time we have this really systemic problem in our community. Here’s all this opulence and here is this poverty,” Lilley said. “For us that contrast is to kind of tell the story of what’s broken in our community onto what seems to be wonderful.”
Mike Cook stays at UGM and works with search and rescue, an outreach team. Jeffries rode along with him in the van as they visited homeless camps in the area. Cook speaks highly of Jeffries’ ability to quickly make connections with people. Along with others, he agreed to let Jeffries take his photograph. He was blown away by the final image.
“It does tell a story of just how hard and lonely it is out there,” Cook said. “I still remember to this day that despair, that emptiness, that blackness. It was not something that I wish on anybody. Because to me there wasn’t any hope and somehow I managed. Somehow. Here I am.”
Jeffries said the project was born 10 years ago out of his own intense loneliness. The full-time accountant sought refuge with people living outside and connected with the community. He said the photos themselves represent the end of their time together. He’s traveled to Rome, Paris and Skid Row in Los Angeles. He described what they all have in common.
“I always find, whoever I spoke to, there’s hope,” Jeffries said. “They always say to me, ‘Lee, this is just a part-time thing for me. This is just a stage in my life I’m just passing through.’ They still, despite their predicament, they still maintain an element of ‘I’m going to get out of this.’”
Cook is in recovery and has experienced several bouts of homelessness in his adult life. He refers to those who are unsheltered as his brothers and sisters because he used to be where they are. Cook has no illusions homelessness will be fixed quickly. Rather than focus on the daunting and ever-increasing number of people who have fallen on hard times, he suggests approaching it on an individual basis by being kind. Not averting your eyes. Developing a friendship with the person you pass on the street on the way to the office every day.
“These are people. They’re not pieces of garbage,” Cook said. “They haven’t done anything wrong other than it’s where they’re at in their life at that moment. And because of that they’re ostracized from the whole human race. It’s like they become nonhuman. And it’s like, how do you make a human being feel human again? Make them feel like they matter.”
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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Wait, there's more. Check out articles in the full November 8 issue which is dedicated to analyzing homeless encampment sweeps.