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An Ordinary Eden: Intimate photos tell stories of home and homelessness

An Ordinary Eden, Margaret Mitchell’s photography project explores the meaning of home through the eyes of people who have experienced homelessness and housing insecurity

Having a home is about more than just a roof over your head. Photographer Margaret Mitchell’s project An Ordinary Eden focuses on individuals who have experience of homelessness, exploring how their lives are impacted and disrupted by not having a safe, secure place to call their own. She talks us through some of the images, which explore the links between housing, a sense of belonging and being able to overcome challenges in life.

She says: “A lot of my work concerns themes such as home, place and belonging. Why the places people live are important to them, why belonging and having roots (or new roots) is fundamental to happiness.

“I started An Ordinary Eden in 2019 leading on from other work on inequalities. I wanted to look at what happened when people don’t always lead the life they thought – or hoped – would happen. What is the importance of ‘home’, how does a period of homelessness impact a person? What are the practical implications and emotional effects and how does society treat those in need?

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“I wanted to work with people who were currently in that situation but also those who could reflect on it from a distance and how it had affected them in the past. The title was inspired by a tattoo on Michael’s neck – EDEN – which he had changed from a message of hate, to one of possibility, of hope perhaps. It seemed to me that what people were looking for was not a perfect fantasy future but a simple wish for a regular life: safety, stability, a pla­ce to belong. Happiness in their own Ordinary Eden.

Summer visiting her mum

This image [main picture, above] aims to reflect love, protection but also hope. When I first met Lyndsey in 2019, she was in a hostel on her own in an isolated location with all the emotional difficulty that caused her. She told me that missing her daughter was an actual physical pain. Over time, she managed to get a permanent house and this image is taken there. Hers is a journey from a place that caused hurt to one where she could re-establish her life with her daughter. This image is part of that story. Her daughter had given her a cuddly toy to hug for when she wasn’t there and as we did this portrait, Lyndsey reached for it.I met several people with children. It seemed the support for woman who had complex needs, for example with drugs or alcohol, is not adequate, it does not help them manage to keep their children with them.

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Ryan in an empty living room
Image: Margaret Mitchell (2021)

Ryan in his living room

One of the first things that Ryan said to me when we chatted on the phone before meeting was that you can feel so alone even though there are people all around. That mental image stayed with me as I started to understand his life and situation. Ryan had been one of the ‘hidden homeless’, not appearing in official statistics, sleeping on various friends’ couches. The second time I travelled to Dundee to meet him, he took me to his house which he’d just received keys for, and we did this photograph.

So in the photograph, he has a house, but it is still an empty place, waiting for life to restart. I wanted to get situations like Ryan’s across in the exhibition, that it’s not so simple as getting a property, people often need support to start living there too. Six months after this photo was taken, he said that “having a home has given me the space and security to grow as a person.”

Green wall with a heart shaped mirror on it
Image: Margaret Mitchell (2021)

Graeme’s living room wall

The first time we met, Graeme had also just moved into permanent housing after many years of instability. I noticed the photo frame propped up on a radiator. A few months later, I returned, and it had found its place on the living room wall but still awaited the memories that would be created within it. For me it symbolises the emotional isolation people often go through but also that having a place to call ‘home’ can often lead to reconnecting with those we love. It is poised and ready to be filled with a happier future.

Michael in his temporary homeless accommodation
Images: Margaret Mitchell

Michael in his temporary homeless accommodation

[On the right], he is sitting in his temporary accommodation in Edinburgh. This is shortly before the first lockdown in March 2020. At the time of the photograph, we didn’t know that everything that kept Michael stable in his life was about to change. All the drop-ins, activities, his routine would stop. He said he was in a purgatory of sorts when he was in temporary accommodation, just waiting to move on. He was a deeply spiritual man with incredible self-knowledge and insight.

In the shirtless photograph, Michael allows us to see his vulnerability but also when you come to the exhibition, you will see how that photograph is presented as a large print. That people like him should be admired for their courage with how they have dealt with challenges and that hidden experiences like his should be more visible. He needed an operation because of his previous lifestyle and he is showing us this history, written on his body with that scar. The damage done to him is visible here, but that damage is also on the inside, in people’s emotions.

man looks out the window in shadow
Image: Margaret Mitchell (2020)

Marcus, age 31, in his first ever home at Christmas

Marcus had a lot of support from Aspire who supported him through referral to AA to combat his alcohol dependency and also prepared him for independent living. He had been homeless since the age of 15, so he had effectively spent more years in various forms of temporary accommodation until the age of 31, when he got the keys for this flat. The question really is why society did not put in place the right support for someone at age 15 so that this didn’t happen.

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No one is the same, no experience the same. Of course, there are patterns that reoccur but the biggest conclusion I reached through repeatedly meeting people, talking with them and photographing them, was that tailored, timely support is inadequate. As a society everyone should be treated with compassion and dignity. Everyone deserves their Ordinary Eden.

An Ordinary Eden is on at Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, until July 16

Find out more about Margaret Mitchell here

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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