This Photographer’s Portraits of the Homeless Are Almost Unbearably Poignant

The sight is all too common on the streets of London. In the midst of a busy square, a girl in a sleeping bag tries to grab a few moments of rest. Without thinking, a photographer raises his camera to capture the moment – the first step in a career that would shed a heartbreaking light on the plight of homeless people around the world.

Lee Jeffries, from Bolton in the United Kingdom, first began delving into the world of photography while living in Manchester, U.K. An amateur photographer, he used his connections in the soccer world to help him begin photographing sports events.

Then, in 2008, everything changed. While visiting London to take part in a marathon, Jeffries decided to snap some photographs in and around the city ahead of the race.

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The photographer headed to the famous Leicester Square, which pulls in millions of tourists every year to its bright lights and glitzy movie premiers. Yet in amongst the glamor, the solitary figure of a homeless girl caught his eye.

The girl was bundled up in a sleeping bag and surrounded by empty Chinese food packaging. Captivated, Jeffries reached for his camera.

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He focused his long lens on the unsuspecting girl and surreptitiously snapped an image or two. But the girl noticed him taking the photographs and became angry at the intrusion.

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“She spotted me and started shouting,” Jeffries told Time Magazine, “drawing the attention of passers by. I could have just walked away in an embarrassed state, or I could have gone over and apologized to her.”

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Instead of beating a hasty retreat, Jeffries decided to cross the street and strike up conversation with the young woman. It was a decision that would have a huge impact on his future career.

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Slowly, the girl revealed her story to Jeffries. Her parents had passed away and left her without a place to live, so she had taken to sleeping on the streets.

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With her permission, Jeffries continued to take more photographs. But his approach to street photography was forever changed.

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“What that girl taught me was respect,” he told Buzzfeed, “…that the photograph is not the be-all and end-all. I can still capture emotion but it is complicit and spiritual.”

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Jeffries believes that many photographers exploit the homeless and their vulnerable positions. He therefore decided to embark on a new photographic project – one that would capture the subjects in a more sensitive and intimate light, and one that would involve each person’s consent.

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Over the last eight years, Jeffries has traveled the world composing portraits of people living on the streets. Everywhere from the infamous Skid Row in Los Angeles, California, to Las Vegas, New York, Paris, London and Rome, he has met people who are down on their luck and has worked with them to create a series of amazing images.

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Much of the haunting quality of his images can be ascribed to Jeffries’ determination to forge a genuine bond with the people he photographs. He takes the time to talk to them and learn their stories and refrains from taking notes or doing anything that might raise suspicion.

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“I’m stepping into their world,” he told Time Magazine. “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.”

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Jeffries does a lot of digital manipulation on his images in order to create his work’s signature haunting look, too. He plays with shadow and light, evoking heavy emotions. “Sometimes I will start to cry when processing the image,” he admits.

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Incredibly, Jeffries is completely self-taught. And despite winning titles in Amateur Photographer magazine’s annual awards for three years in a row, he continues to use his own money to fund his work.

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Over time, Jeffries’ interest in photographing the homeless has transformed into a mission to raise awareness. He has donated all of the cameras he has won in competitions to drum up funds for homeless organizations, and he’s gifted the proceeds from his portrait book to the Los Angeles-based Union Rescue Mission.

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Jeffries has also become involved in a personal level with some of the individuals he has photographed. In doing everything from taking a sick woman to the hospital for treatment to buying lunch for those in need, the photographer reckons he has given out thousands of dollars over the years.

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The photographer’s hard work seems to have paid off, though. His portraits have appeared in several leading newspapers and garnered viral attention on social media. As a quote on Jeffries’ blog explains, “He has made these people into more than poor old broken homeless people lazily waiting for a handout from some urbane and thoughtful corporate agent. He infused them with light, not darkness.”

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