As I’ve often lamented in previous posts, it’s not often many of us truly look at the human side of a lot of things. We hear so much about deaths here, or destroyed homes there, and other tragic occurrences that befall humans at every turn, and each time we react with a sort of perfunctory sense of sympathy. Of course we feel bad, but we don’t truly know or understand the raw depths of these misfortunes. It’s not that we’re bad or selfish creatures, as most human beings are at least nominally moral or ethical (even if they have different standards of those things). There are many reasons for this disconnection from one another, including our limited cognitive and sensory abilities that literally keep us from being able to focus attention on too many sympathetic subjects, especially if they’re distant.
Of course, none of this justifies the level of callousness and even disgust that is often displayed towards the unfortunate. Homeless people are a case in point. It’s often assumed that they’re either crazy or lazy, if not both. Granted, there is a certain kernel of truth to these stereotypes, as with any: certainly, most homeless people, as far as we can tell, suffer from some sort of mental illness or another. And there are always going to be people who suffer misfortune due to their own neglect and irresponsibility. But to look down on all destitute people as vagrants, drug addicts, and wackos is not only a display of lazy, ignorant thinking; it dehumanizes an entire class of people who are every bit the same as us as we “better off” folks are to each other.
Regardless of which narrative you prescribe to, homeless people and other itinerants are pretty much ignored in most societies (indeed, even in countries where people are predominately poor, you find vast amounts of segregation based on class and income, creating a virtual state within a state in some extreme cases). We go about our everyday lives not consciously aware of them, and even upon a chance encounter with one, we do our best to look away or not really acknowledge their existence. I know there are reasons for this beyond mere callousness, but it still fascinates me nonetheless.
Thankfully, I’m not the only one who is curious about all this. A photographer form the UK named Lee Jefferies has pretty much made a career out of depicting the rawness and depth of the homeless, giving them an intense level of humanity through detailed black-and-white portraits. Most of those pictured are from his native Britain, as well as continental Europe and the US. They all display striking character in their expression and features. Interestingly, many of them appear elderly or close to it.
Many more of these images are available here. The collection is quite large, but the sheer diversity of subjects is captivating. If anyone is interested in looking at more of his excellent work besides that of the homeless, Jefferies has over a hundred more photos of various other subjects in his Flickr account.
Since I was a child, I’ve always been fascinated by homeless people. I grew up in a relatively well-off, middle-class family. I lived comfortably and satisfied, and the very idea of eking out an existence on the streets or in condemned housing seemed both unimaginably awful and remarkably inspiring. I thought about the lack of a warm bed, good food, personal amenities, and dignity. I thought of what it must be like to live in such a lonely, cold, dirty, and unhealthy environment, with everyone looking down on your or pitying you. You have to take your pick between being a subject of pity, often patronizing as it were, or outright contempt and hostility; you were either a poor, unfortunate wretch, or the scum of society. Either way, you existed in a different world that was shuttered away from most of the more fortunate.
As usual, I’m sure I’m romanticizing all this far more than I should. Reality is usually far more stark and straightforward. But I don’t care. It’s these victims of misfortune and cruel chance that remind me how luck I am to be sitting in the comfort of my room, surrounded by my nice things, writing about them. It’s their plight that has committed me to doing everything I can to make sure as many of them – if even just one of them – can be brought out of such misery and given a chance as possible. Few people deserve such a fate, and fewer still should be forgotten just because it’s befallen them. Anyone of us has as much chance as being in these photos as we do looking at them through our personal computers.
Many thanks to my good friend Mike for introducing me to these pics and, as always, spurring some deep reflections.