Abject Poverty / Object Poverty

Presenting poverty is difficult, as is presenting suffering in general. To expose someone to the lens, and then to the wider world, in a moment of struggle or pain or fear, must be justified by some purpose, some greater act of goodness. Otherwise it is simply a kind of voyeurism – a static piece of rubber-necking. I think this is a well-recognised problem that all photojournalist with any claim to integrity must struggle with – so I don’t expect to break any ground by bringing it up right here. No, this piece is simply to offer a neat little example – a coincidental chain of images – which made me think about the problems of showing poverty and which also throws up some other knotty little issues that turn out to be pretty big fat major issues that run within the practise and concept of documentary photography.

Don McCullin, Jean, Whitechapel, London, c 1980

Last week I went to see Don McCullin’s retrospective at Tate Britain. It’s a muted and interesting display occupying only one room (I’m told the McCullin exhibit at the Imperial War Museum is more impressive). I found myself struggling with McCullin’s images of homeless people and remarked to my friends that I believed these portraits had to be viewed with some nod towards historical context. By this I meant that I suspected these portraits were something more remarkable at the time of their production (60s – 80s) than in 2012. To be clear, I mean the fact of their existence was more remarkable, rather than the aesthetic of the image. The aesthetic is still incredible: eyes stare or defer, skin is rendered in smoky greys, coats and shadows are as heavy and black as charcoal on a canvas. But treating the dispossessed with a painter’s reverence must’ve been a bigger statement then than it might be now. I’m not saying it’s right that social issues should be reduced to fighting out whether or not their image has become cliché – but I am saying that it does, sadly, happen.  The fact that a pressing social issue can become ‘cliché’ is a disturbing problem and one which artists interested in social change must inevitably grapple with and seek out new strategies against.

Don McCullin, Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London 1969

I think the cliché is probably born of three sets of circumstance: that of the socially concerned photographer, that of the homeless person, and the bitter fact that homelessness is a problem that is ongoing and needs ever renewed address. The photographer’s desire to deal with the issues of poverty in his/her vicinity coupled with the accessibility of people who have nowhere else to go and who therefore continually offer their image, seems to make it quite likely that ‘the homeless’ will become a subject for the concerned photographer. Throw in the draw of some loose change being handed over in return for a snap and the potential for the image to be made is even greater. It is the economic imbalance, the fact that one person has private space and can protect his/her visibility and that the other has very limited access to private space and protection of his/her visibility, that worries me and makes me think that deeper problems might sometimes underlie the small social event of photographer photographing homeless person.

The other thing that made me uncomfortable was that these photos made feel useless. I did not understand why I was being asked to consume them as objects on a gallery wall. Were these art objects or a campaign? Both? Or maybe, evidence of a past campaign that now takes on the form of art? Or perhaps, evidence of McCullin himself, of his actions within the world, of his type of photography? The narrative these pictures propose are troubling to me – am I learning about McCullin (who afterall, is the subject of the exhibition), am I learning about these homeless people (who may be long dead, or totally altered from the image on the wall), am I learning about homelessness in general?  In any case, what can I hope to achieve as witness to their suffering? Suffering which is at least thirty years out of date. It’s a funny bind because the fact that these images figure a past makes me think that this suffering is ancient and unchangeable. This encourages one to turn the images into an art object, a piece of imagery. But that suffering is still there, however old, and to dislocate the art of the image from the suffering of the person shown seems usurious and inhumane.  Indeed it comes down to this: Am I witnessing a social problem or am I consuming an image? And how reconcilable are these two cases?

All these questions and feelings resurfaced again a few days later when I saw this spread in The Guardian’s Weekend Magazine (of the 21st of January):

A number of things struck me – first of all the attractiveness of the grid layout and the density of portraits across the two pages. I find this layout intriguing, it makes me want to study each image and draw comparisons between them.  The highly detailed and dense quality of each image is interesting as well, if a bit over-glossed – creases, eyelashes and scratches are all rendered with a metallic precision.  Then, I noticed that there were no captions, no stories for any or each of these faces. At first this intrigued me even more – I began to ask questions of the faces, I began to worry about their histories, I began to notice the difference between them. But then I also began to wonder where the stories were and whether it was fair to present these faces, especially in such an aesthetically pleasing way, if the complex issues that lay behind each person’s predicament were excluded.

On one hand, I welcomed this as a new strategy: it got me interested; it got me asking myself questions. On the other hand that line of questioning ended in me wondering what the purpose or intended effect of putting these images in a weekend magazine without their stories was. There is a hint of idealisation about it, of romantic storytelling: “…they are also beautiful. A woman with exquisite cheekbones; an elderly man who resembles a medieval sage…”. I find too much romanticism unhelpful to social causes.  Once we enter a romantic narrative we also broach the reasons and feelings that motivate us to continue writing the narrative.  It was this sentence especially that I found most excluding and difficult: “…their weathered skin and intense gazes tell of the hardship of life on the streets perhaps better than the subjects could themselves.”. The face becomes a visual object to tell a tale, rather than the first presentation of a whole and complex human being with a whole and complex story. I think these faces do tell us a lot, but is it enough for a project that seeks to develop an intimacy with homeless people and to break down the everyday barriers that allow us to walk on by, to then reduce that story only to the face? I might be closer to the face of another than I have been before, but I’m also being asked to take that image, and that person, at ‘face-value’ and this erects a new kind of barrier.


My thoughts here were very much developed in response to The Guardian’s presentation of the images. It is interesting to see Time’s presentation of the same images on their LightBox site:http://lightbox.time.com/2012/01/26/portraits-of-the-homeless-by-lee-jeffries/#1

In fact, on LightBox, some of my worries and questions were answered. The explanation of Jeffries’ practice and the fact that he has used his work to raise funds for the homeless helps to make the status of these images a bit more clear. Also, the photographs on LightBox have captions – only location and date – but it makes a big difference to the meaning of the image. It makes this person locatable and historical thereby giving them a context which illustrates their situation in social terms. Jeffries says: “I’m stepping into their world. Everyone else walks by like the homeless are invisible. I’m stepping through the fear, in the hope that people will realize these people are just like me and you.” Of course, art cannot always be measured by what the artist claims it to be, however this does reaffirm my initial feeling towards the images – that they attempt a kind of intimacy that subverts the non-homeless person’s average interaction with the homeless person.

Well, this goes to show how much an editorial can construct, construe and influence meaning.

Madeleine Corcoran.

This post was originally published on my own blog here.

Discussion (9 Comments)

  1. I too came across these images in a magazine recently and was immediately struck by two things – the impact of the extremely engaging images and the resounding echo in my head of ‘oh no here we go again with glorious depictions of poverty’. Then I read the intro and did an about turn. The back story revealed that this was indeed a different approach and one that it’s fair to say is more collaborative and because of that, has some benefit for the subject.

    It’s a dilemma. I’ve been a professional Social Worker for over twenty years, but also been a (concerned) photographer for more than thirty years. My personal photographic work over the period of my Social Work employment does not particularly reflect that ‘concern’ in much of it’s subject matter. Working closely with marginalised people on a daily basis made me realise that the complexity of the story of their difficult, and occasionally very damaged, lives did not easily translate into an image. So I took very few.

    Issues of confidentiality aside, their haunted face might be arresting as an object, but it was all about the surface. I feel this leaves too much of the interpretation of their story to the prejudices of the viewer for it to have any real value, particularly to the subject (if indeed one accepts that such work SHOULD have value to the subject).

    Photography CAN work to make a difference for people who have such complex needs, but it’s a fine line that needs to be walked to be successful. Too much of this type of work is more about the image and less about the subject, with the individuals subsumed as ‘the homeless’ and meaningless generalities used to describe their situations. I feel extremely uncomfortable with that approach, because it’s one that denies the differences of individuality that have resulted in these people having the problems they do.

    The image should be the last thing that you take, after taking the time to listen. I think then the resulting work might be more about understanding than voyeurism.

  2. Peter Hope says:

    A really interesting read. Fat and thorny issues indeed. In regards to the aesthetic I always think its pertinent to remind oneself that it is us, individually and collectively, who bestow the qualities of beauty/ugliness etc on the object that is ink and paper. Each of us has to wrestle with the apparent conflict between formal harmony and subject and I wonder whether it is actually this dilemma that holds our attention. Extrapolated this may lead us to question whether suffering is indeed unchangeable. I think your point of placing work in a historical context is important as ‘taste’ is equally fluid in the ebb and flow of discourse.
    I didn’t see the Times article, but I find the line ‘an elderly man who resembles a medieval sage’ deeply troubling; in adding romantic salt to an unpalatable dish the struggle with what is socially permissible entertainment is reconciled. The subject is transformed into a bearer of the kind of wisdom that can only be acquired through a life of frugal solitude. WTF. As you point out we are suddenly in the realm of the tale and yes, the caption becomes critical in counter-acting this.

  3. J A Mortram says:

    Totally agree with you RE editorial being of huge importance.

    LJ’s said of his work that his ‘subjects receive some form of payment’ and it’s that which I have the most trouble dealing with.


    The notion of stepping into a life, for a brief moment, paying to take an image then working in photo-shop to enhance the aesthetic of suffering whilst sharing nothing of the person or their story raises a great many moral questions for me. It’s the pornography of poverty. Trust can’t be bought, if paid for it smarts of voyeurism, objectification and exploitation, to me.

    Intentions may be great and to donate money to charities and raise awareness of homelessness is well deserved of praise but the resulting images still leave me with a bad taste in my mouth knowing those moments were bought, not shared.

    • ciara says:

      I completely agree with you Jim and i discussed my feelings with Madeleine on Twitter when Guardian published this series – I haven’t seen how it looked in print until now.

      I think the portraiture is of course very strong but there’s something about it which leaves me feeling very uneasy, and has done since i saw the Guardian’s online gallery. Part of this for me is aesthetic – I really don’t like this kind of processing, which I find very manipulative – but I think my biggest complaint was the captions, which were completely inadequate for me and gave far too little context. I was just left with a lingering feeling that these people were being objectified somewhat – which I’m sure isn’t the photographer’s intention as he clearly really cares.

      The Lightbox feature was presented a bit better for me, the interview with Lee gave a little of the context I was after, but overall it still falls short. Like many photographers/journalists I have done the ubiquitous stories on homelessness – I work for the Big Issue, in my defence, and have done a photo residency within a homeless day centre. I met clients there (and vendors for that matter) who at times look fairly dishevelled but not like this….I dunno, I guess our ‘photographic eyes’ are all calibrated to see different things. I don’t mean to criticise this photographer but I just see street homelessness a bit differently.

      Incidentally – photo 5 on the Guardian slideshow, the old man with the snot running down his face, is a Big Issue in the North vendor and someone who works in the office brought him the Guardian feature because of course he had no idea that these images were being published anywhere. I have asked what his reaction was (not sure how I’d feel about being photographed like that) but apparently he didn’t really say very much in response. I’m not suggesting drawing conclusions from that of course.

  4. Stan B. says:

    Is there ever a right way to approach this “genre” of photography? There will always be criticism (and rightfully so) to be had on this subject matter, no matter the intention, no matter the approach. Obviously, the more time and interaction spent between subject and photographer, the more likely the resulting work will communicate and portray a more nuanced, informative or intimate portrayal.

    These people have become faceless, interchangeable backdrops in our everyday, waking lives- something that grid only reinforces, something editors do when they deem the photographs weak or maybe (just maybe) lacking innate appeal. Slather on the graphic eye candy and maybe we can still have some fun with it! Mix and match- who’s more desperate, more drug addicted, more mentally incompetent… The homeless shell game. It negates the very power of Mr. Jeffries singular portraits that breathes some manner of individuality into these lives that we so regularly overlook (and often disdain). These photographs give us the opportunity to look again, to reconsider, to finally notice the humanity still left burning.

    They’re a wake up call, that’s all photography can really do when done right- throw us the ball.


  5. ciara says:

    A new series of LJ’s work from Miami has just been put on Time Lightbox

    The fact that there are names for some of the subjects this time (or otherwise it states a name wasn’t given) is a great improvement for me, as was the little snippet of information about Latoria. Still find them troubling though, I have to say.

  6. J A Mortram says:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/32550848@N02/6791992542/in/photostream the subject of the 2011 POTY competition winning entry, photographed whilst retaining his dignity.

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