Photographer Leah Denbok turns the camera on homelessness to humanize the street’s invisible community.
By Jesse Mintz
Valleys and peaks of deep lines run across their weathered skin, while broken teeth hide behind broken smiles—their truths, all caught in an instant with the click of a shutter.
Like the brushstrokes of a painter, Leah Denbok’s camera captures every strand of hair, scar, scab and wrinkle as evidence of the hardships that define life on the street.
At 17, this Collingwood, Ontario teen has walked the streets of downtown in cities across the province—always joined by her father, Tim—to seek out the people others look through: the homeless. “People think homeless people put themselves in these situations or they deserve it and that gives them the right to ignore them,” says a soft-spoken Leah. “But these stories have stuck with me. They’re so tragic, they could be any of us.”
From behind her camera, she examines lives lived on the periphery of society. The end product of her study is a series of deeply personal, uncompromising portraits—somberly beautiful and intense. But even more than that, the result is an awareness—both in the artist and viewer—of the pain life on the street seeds.
It started as an art project. Leah had been shooting friends and family members, pets and landscapes—anything that let her capture a moment in time—when her teacher suggested she focus on portraiture. Drawn to the histories told by the features of the human face, she landed on taking pictures of homeless people. She explains, “their faces tell a story of their life and what’s happened to them.”
During the first few weeks of her project, she’d walk through downtown Toronto, meeting people living on the street, asking them to model for her and offering money for their time. While she snapped away, her subjects would talk. They would share how they ended up in cardboard boxes and under bridges, open up about what their lives were like and reminisce about the comforts of home and family they missed. By the end of their sitting, the pain that had been ignored by so many was laid bare before Leah. “Hearing their stories,” Leah explains. “It definitely changed my perspective.”
Before long, it became clear to the young photographer that the women and men she met were not just subjects to photograph; they were individuals experiencing hardship and tragedy. They were people looking for human connection and desperate for a voice.
Leah’s project was transformed. Now, it would be about voice and agency. Her father would ask questions about each person’s life, as she took their portraits. To Leah’s artistic pride, the process gave her pictures new depth, allowing her to “capture their personality, after hearing them talk about their lives and experiences.”
The portrait series became a platform for the homeless. The father and daughter duo had found a way to give people—too often forgotten—an opportunity to tell their stories in print and photos, culminating in their book, Nowhere to Call Home—Photographs and Stories of the Homeless. The collection comes out later this month with all the proceeds going to the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre.
As for the narratives themselves, they range from harrowing to heart-breaking.
Take Chris, who’d only been homeless for a couple of weeks when they met him. Chris had a son, but he died in a car accident, a death followed by his wife choosing to take her own life in despair after the tragedy. Unable to cope with the grief, Chris turned to drugs, which led him to the street.
Then there is Lucy, who shares dreams of becoming a journalist.
And Ronnie, a man who lost his daughter to cancer.
And Leslie, who relied on alcohol to get through his days on the street until he found a stray one-week-old kitten and dedicated his sobriety to taking care of it.
“Before I started the project, I never realized the realities of these peoples’ lives,” Leah admits. “It’s taught me not to judge people you see on the streets. They’re kind people who’ve had something happen to them.”
In their quest to give voice to some of the 235,000 people living on the streets across the country annually, Leah and Tim visit the same spots regularly in cities and towns across the province. They concentrate on high traffic areas, near tourist destinations or poverty stricken neighborhoods, near shelters and group homes.
“We often see the same people over and over,” Leah comments. As she shares, they have gotten to know some individuals intimately, checking in on how the job hunt or apartment search is going and always bringing copies of their photos to share. But then there are the others—the invisible missing that her work means to put a face to. Leah turns grave when she speaks of them: “Some people, we never see again.”