The homeless are usually a marginalised group burdened by the stigma of being social outcasts, but for British photographer Lee Jefferies they have become the focus of his latest exhibition of black and white portraits titled ‘Homeless’. Jefferies, who is an accountant by day from Manchester, UK travelled various cities such as London, New York, Rome and Los Angeles photographing the homeless. His interest in capturing lives of street dwellers was spurred in 2008 after seeing a homeless girl in a sleeping bag in London’s Leicester Square. He was immediately intrigued and instead of walking away Jefferies decided to talk to the young girl and subsequently took a photograph of her. This photo laid the foundation for Jefferies’ powerful and visually emotive street photography exhibition. From the glaring stares of the elderly homeless, the soft poignant expressions of children and desolate faces of the middle-aged, Jefferies personifies the diverse scope of modern street dwellers in all their suffering and hardship. It is interesting that most photos are head shots, we do not see the squalid living conditions, the sleeping bags etc which leaves the viewer free to construct their own narrative behind each picture.
Most of the photos are incredibly unnerving and haunting; especially the intense deadpan expressions of the elderly homeless displaying cracked faces coupled with unkempt beards and hair. In contrast there are some photos of hope – the young child dressed in tweed which looks to be on a street in Tokyo bears a quaint smile as he looks to the side. There’s also the blonde haired freckled child, who looks much older than his young years, bearing a sad expression which conjures up an image from Les Miserables. Then there are the wretched faces of despair, where Jefferies contextualises the physical side effects of homelessness such as hard drug use, alcohol abuse and harsh weather conditions.
The most impressive aspect is the detail in every piece, each wrinkle, scar and tear combined with the intense expressions of emptiness. Jefferies has ardently explained that he aims to capture exactly what he sees, in the hope of triggering emotions from the viewer. There are a number of photos with homeless women with their hands over their mouths, as if they are trying to refrain from screaming/crying which are somewhat touching. It is clear Jefferies is both intrigued and endeared by outsiders and it’s impressive that the homeless can be viewed without judgement within this exhibition. We don’t care how or why they are homeless but instead the viewer can contemplate their suffering for awhile; something which many find difficult to do when faced with seeing the homeless in real life. Jefferies has a gift of capturing so much within the eyes which slowly draws us into the soul of each person he photographs.
The choice to use only black and white gives every photo depth, the soft shadows intermixed with deep shades of grey and black evoke all kinds of emotions from each piece. The shading is something that Jefferies concentrates on, as he meticulously enhances every photo after he’s taken them. It was unclear as to whether Jefferies made the conscious decision to omit the names and cities of his portraits – however this added to the mystery behind every photo. It left the viewer space to guess the background behind each person, and ponder their journey to reaching a place without shelter. Check out this exhibition if you can, it’s provocative and moving – emotive realism at its best.
Till 12th January 2014
Museo di Roma Trastevere
Piazza S.Egidio, 1/b
Entry fee €7.50