The results are a collection of stunning, dignified portraits that are sure to endure, both as works of art, and as a valuable social document in the mission to end misconceptions about homelessness. The FLACK editorial team, comprised of members of the Cambridge, England homeless community, collected its most probing thoughts, and elected some representatives to Skype Banning. The result was the following conversation…
FLACK: Which picture was the most important?
Jan Banning: That’s kind of a hard question – almost as if I would take one person in the series more serious than the others. Indirectly, there was a reason why I picked a specific one for the cover of the book – which in a sense functions as the most important photograph. That was based purely on two things: his way of looking with those piercing blue eyes, and the quality of the image. I’d also say he was representative of the biggest single group in the homeless population as I saw them in the South: typically middle-aged, white men.
F: Was there diversity amongst the population that you met?
JB: Yes… though this was the biggest single group. I didn’t do any statistical investigation obviously, so this is just my own impression. Probably the second largest groups were younger white men and elderly-to-middle aged black men. The smallest number was probably African-American women, and not that many families – at least where I was. Most of the subjects were met in places like shelters and soup kitchens.
F: It’s interesting, as in the UK there is a growing phenomenon of families who are made homeless due to economic reasons. Whereas traditionally, homelessness occurs when people don’t have family as a solid support network.
JB: I could well be mistaken – there could well be a large number of homeless families. But they were not there where I was photographing. My impression is, certainly in the South of the US, a lot of the activities directed towards helping homeless people are pity driven. Pity first of all goes to families and children; so I think the public react much more strongly and sympathetically to those groups than to single men.
F: Was there anything you learned during the interviews that really shocked or surprised you?
JB: Yes, on different levels. I could mention two things. Of course, this was not the first time I went to the US, so I did know a little bit about its culture. But the ‘jungle’ character of society still surprised me. There is so little protection. I grew up in Western Europe – Holland, Germany, Belgium, France – and, of course, we have homeless people here too. It’s not great to be homeless here either, but my impression is that there are far more safety nets and systems in place to help people. Of course, everyone is celebrating the free market, and that’s where we happen to be heading, but still there is much more safety here than in the US.
If you listen to the interviews on my website, you hear several stories of people who’ve just had bad luck. Let’s take one example – a man who was ordered by his boss to lift something which was far too heavy. He hurt his back, and that was the end of his working career. Many years later, he found out that he could have sued or gotten compensation – but he, and many others I think, are so little aware of their rights – they are not being informed. And by the time they find out, it’s over. They have to sue within a specific window of time (I think it’s two years or three years), and if they don’t, that’s it. In Europe, this would automatically mean that you qualify for some kind of social welfare. This gentleman does get some social welfare, but very little – he did not get compensation in any meaningful way. So in that sense it was each man for himself.And that brings me to the second thing which also struck me. When they were talking about the causes of their homelessness, I was expecting a lot of people to mention injustice in society, this ‘jungle’ character of society – the ridiculously low minimum wages that are set for people. What struck me is that so few people interpreted their own fate in the context of society. So they did not complain about injustices, very obvious injustices, in that society. They try to solve it individually, and they also look at it in a completely individualistic way – in a social vacuum, as if there were no society around them, no politics, nothing. So the un-political interpretation, even from homeless people themselves, really struck me.
F: Has there been any resistance or reaction to your work that’s surprised you?
JB: I had some publicity online at CNN and there were about 55 or so comments. Last week it was published on Slate, and the last time I looked there were some 130 reactions.
When I started this whole series, one of the things I kept on hearing was nobody was paying attention – or, they were paying attention, in that they consciously avoided homeless people! Physically, in their cars, as that’s how people travel mostly in the US, if they saw a homeless person on the left side they’d deliberately turn their heads towards the right. If we just take CNN and Slate, that’s almost 200 comments – so you do see that people react strongly. Some of these reactions are silly, or completely idiotic. People were coming up with things such as “All homeless people are mental patients who refuse to take their medicine!”
Yes, there are quite a lot of people with mental health difficulties on the streets, but is that something to blame them for? First of all, they tear down all the mental institutes, so it’s very hard for people to get treatment, and now they’re being blamed for being mental patients? The attitude is, “oh, they’re mental patients, they clearly deserve their fate for not taking their medicine.” In some serious cases, someone with mental health difficulties will believe the rest of the world is crazy (and they might possibly be right to some extent), and of course he’s not going to take medication from someone he doesn’t trust. I mean, they’re mental patients for God’s sake!
But I have to say, in the case of Slate, and some of the comments on CNN, there were a lot of sympathetic comments and reactions. If you take into consideration my idea for taking this on was to bring this debate into the public domain from another angle, I get the impression that it worked. You have to just accept you’ll get these comments from idiots. If you want discussion, you’ll get discussion.
F: What sort of equipment do you use?
JB: It was shot on film, a medium format camera, 6×8 cm, in a small mobile studio in any room or office that I could borrow from one of the organizations involved. What I was trying to get at is an atmosphere which is as remote as possible from the normal snapshots of homeless photography. In fact, I tend to compare this more to a sculpture piece – I wanted it to be monumental. So the message is: you and me, the photographer and subject together, are going to try to make something monumental. The whole atmosphere of having a big camera, the studio, an intimate setting, and asking people to be silent around it – my assistant had to stay out of sight during the photo session – this silence and concentration I hope contributed somehow to the feeling that ‘now, we are going to make a monument of you as a person’. For that, I think a big camera helps. And it also helps for the results. The photographs were shown at an exhibition which has just finished, and they were huge portraits – 5 and a half foot high – and of course you need a high definition camera for that.
F: A lot of it is about turning people into art, in as much as that’s possible. The idea is opening up that closed system of people’s perception, and allowing them to see themselves from the outside. What do you think your participants got out of the experience?
JB: Very few people commented on it. My impression, and in some cases what I heard from a few of them and from the outreach worker I was working with, was that it was probably very satisfying for them to talk about themselves. To be acknowledged as a human being, to collect the history of him or herself. I did get the impression that they find very little opportunity in general to talk about their experiences. Not surprisingly, the average public is not really interested in talking with homeless people, and their fellow homeless people very often have their own problems. My guess would be that they felt taken seriously as a human being, worth being listened to.
F: They felt they had a voice?
JB: Yes. I have been wondering about some of these aspects. I was recently back in the US for another project, and the idea has come up to find the gentleman, David, who is on the cover of the book. There’s a weird irony that suddenly here in the Netherlands his face was shown all over the country as part of a photography festival. In newspapers, on big banners of the festival; it was David everywhere. At the same time, the poor guy is still homeless and an alcoholic in the US who has no idea of this. This is all speculation, but possibly it would be a contribution to his self-respect, to see that his image has had that kind of impact and popularity. I would like to share this with him. I’m considering starting a quest, and have been talking to filmmakers here, to see if it would be an idea to make a kind of road movie of the search to find David.
F: Has the work changed your own perception of homeless people?
JB: My impression is that here, in my surroundings, the dominant problem would be untreated mental health problems. Here, there are ways for homeless people to get support. They’re not ideal, they’re not perfect, but there’s something. I had never realized, certainly in the US, that stupid accidents can play such a role. For example, in the interviews, there’s a heart-breaking story of a woman whose fiancé dies in their house – he gets electrocuted in front of her eyes. She tries to resuscitate him, it doesn’t work, and from that moment on she cannot really be in that house because all she sees in the house is that image of him dying there. Traumatized, she flees the house, and to become homeless because of that – that is barbarity in society. That is the kind of thing I’d never thought of.
Let me give you another story, an elderly woman who told me that she was married, they were living together and both had jobs – they weren’t doing great, but they were surviving. At some point her son commits suicide, and there came about a traumatizing situation so bad that she actually tried to commit suicide herself. That led to her husband not trusting her alone in the house, because he was afraid she’d do something to herself. So the husband stays away from work, and so obviously he loses his work. At that point he’s still trying to care for his family, but in a criminal way. He gets into problems with justice, gets into prison. Of course, it starts with the boy committing suicide, which is a personal tragedy, but I would say couldn’t you organize society a bit better so that a person to whom something like that happens does not then have to end up on the street? How barbaric do we want our society to be?
So those kind of things I’d never really realized before. And another thing, which is where David comes in – he was an alcoholic. He described his whole alcoholism, I think, in a very honest and, to me, very convincing way, and he was not trying to put himself forward as a victim. But as he explained how this worked for him, I was pretty convinced that the best way to look at it was like a disease and not, as a lot of people do, as somebody’s own fault. It’s always easy to blame people for wrong decisions; it’s harder to judge them in a fair way.
Read more interviews with Jan Banning at http://www.janbanning.com/gallery/down-and-out-in-the-south/#interviews
Toby IIsley & the FLACK Editorial Team
FLACK – UK
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