After a chance meeting with a homeless girl in Leicester Square, photographer Lee Jeffries started photographing the lesser known faces of our society.
A roughly estimated 1 million people are classified as homeless in Britain today, with half of them living in temporary accommodation and the rest on the street. Their everyday lifestyles and struggles are something we do not see as we walk past. In black and white, photographer Lee Jeffries (well known on Flickr as LJ) takes head shots of people he passes living rough. Exposed, grainy and hiding nothing, the pictures draw you in and make you wonder what path has led them there.
A keen supporter of the homeless charity Shelter, Jeffries ran the London Marathon in 2010 to raise funds. Humbled and impressed, i-D online spoke to Jeffries to find out more.
What made you first pick up a camera and start taking photographs? I own my own cycling business. I first started to use a camera for product shots. That soon moved to sports photography and the rest is history as they say.
You originally took football photographs and then a chance meeting with a homeless girl, changed your direction. Can you describe how that happened? I was in London to run the marathon. On the Saturday before the race, I was wondering around Leicester Square and noticed a young homeless girl huddled in her sleeping bag in a shop doorway. I started to take shots from across the street. Oh my… she kicked up a right fuss and started shouting at me. Passersby were looking at us both and to be honest I felt very embarrassed. I was faced with a choice… turn away and pretend it never happened… or go and face her. I chose the latter. Her story changed my view about street photography and I will always be courteous enough to ask permission for a portrait now.
Some people look at the homeless in a negative way and with little sympathy. How did your perceptions of them change by photographing them? Just hearing their stories and how they became homeless is heartbreaking. It doesn’t take much. A lost job, a broken marriage, it could happen to anybody and the stereotypes of drug addiction for example amongst the homeless are really symptoms of the underlying problem of why these individuals became homeless in the first place. I never judge a person for being homeless and I found myself in the same situation just recently, but I was lucky, I had a great support network of friends who could help.
Did any stories shock you? I’ve heard them all. Broken marriages, lost jobs, criminal activity. It’s not the stories that shock me but the speed at which they can happen to somebody. I think that is often the tragedy of homelessness.
You have photographed homeless people in Europe and the US. Is there any variation to their style of living or the type of people you find on the street? Homelessness is homelessness. I have never seen anything like Skid Row in Los Angeles though. The problems are magnified to such an extent that huge Missions have been built in the area to help alleviate the suffering. Homeless people are particularly vulnerable wherever they happen to be from, and the problem of addiction/violence and health are as true in London as they are in Los Angeles.
Has anyone ever been angry at you for taking their photograph? I always ask, so don’t really get into that situation anymore. I had a gun pulled on me in Las Vegas a few years ago.
Your images are very emotional, full of detail and atmospheric. Do you feel they capture the essence of the person you photograph? I like to think they convey the emotion I witnessed before photographing them. I am very careful in choosing my subjects and I look for something in my subject perhaps only I can recognise. Once I’ve seen it I try to capture it. Is it the essence of the person? Maybe not. The emotion is certainly something that says something about that individual though.
What subject matter do you wish to cover next in your photography? I am looking to expand my portfolio with perhaps more emphasis on pure reportage. It’s a personal ambition to cover some of the stories and faces in Afghanistan for example.
Text: Paris Bennett