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Lockdown in London… through the eyes of homeless people

During lockdown in London, Big Issue sellers were unable to work. One creative project offered an alternative way to make money – by documenting the historical moment, giving a glimpse into the experience of people without a permanent home.

Out of Home is an exhibition, a set of limited edition photographs, and a book, telling a story of central London through the eyes of a group of homeless people over lockdown.

The photographs are taken by Carly, Darren, Joe, Craig, Kelly, and Andre, over the period of going into ‘Tier 3’ in London, and through lockdown.

‘Stay at home’ is a phrase we’ve all heard hundreds, perhaps thousands of times over the last year.

Like ‘Mind the gap’, or ‘See it, say it, sorted’, it’s become one of those phrases we’ve heard so often it has simply soaked into the background of life.

But many Big Issue sellers were among a unique group during this period: told constantly to ‘Stay at home’ by TV, by radio, by billboards, by newspapers, and by politicians, but with no permanent home themselves.

Lucy Wood and I live in the centre of London, and over the period we’ve been here we have become friends with quite a few homeless people. We knew how hard ‘Lockdown 1’ had been for the few people left on the streets, and had helped out some, where we could, at that weird time, when The Big Issue could not legally be sold and – even if it could have been – there was nobody on the street to buy it.

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Chatting with a couple of friends – including Darren Fairbrass, who sells The Big Issue on Garrick Street – we came up with a simple plan to make sure people could earn a bit of money even while The Big Issue couldn’t be sold. We decided it would be useful to document how life was on the street, at a time when almost everyone was “staying at home”. Lots has been written about the pandemic, but there is very little out there from many of those who have been affected by homelessness over this period of unique difficulty in the world.

We came up with the idea of providing disposable cameras, and paying homeless photographers to document the world. We agreed very loose guidelines for the project with each photographer:

  • Try to take photographs in the day if possible, when there is light, but if not possible night is fine
  • Take photographs of things you find interesting, or would like to photograph
  • For each camera, you’ll be paid £20, with ideally a maximum of 1 camera per day, but flexible where it could help
  • Try to spend less than 1 hour 45 taking photos in any given day, meaning that the work was paid at London Living Wage

The outcome of the project was hundreds of cameras, and many thousands of photographs. Many photographers moved in and out of the project, some just taking a camera or two, some never returning them, but some completing a camera each day. The outcome is a unique picture of life – one that perhaps many Big Issue sellers are familiar with, but that that has not been covered in the wider media, and I think many people across the country are just unaware of.

This has now been turned into an exhibition, at St Martin-in-the-Fields, 30 seconds walk from Trafalgar Square, and into a book, and a set of limited edition photographic prints. Profits from the book, and the prints, go to the photographers, with a proportion to St Martin-in-the-Fields (where The Big Issue was first launched) to help their work around homelessness. Kelly Francis, one of the photographers, died, age 39, during the project. The exhibition is also in her memory.

Big Issue vendors Joe Pengelly and Darren Fairbrass were among the photographers. They are both excellent photographers and writers.

Joe explained why the project was important to him. “Living in a hostel where I don’t have a permanent tenancy has been stressful. I have hardly any financial support so am having to beg still, I work selling magazines normally, but the magazine has been shut down,” he said.

“Taking photos has been interesting, confusing, inspiring, therapeutic and empowering because I am finally able to do something worthwhile for cash. In all, it’s made me feel like I am living rather than just existing, and I am trusted with cash.”

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Darren said the lockdown had been a very difficult time. “Living on the streets during the last year has been one hell of a challenge for sure, especially the first lockdown we had, as life completely disappeared out here,” he said.

“This photo project has made such a difference during the lockdown, and have had fun doing them and made life out here a bit easier as have had a way to earn a bit of money.”

The photos are an interesting, unique view of the world during this period. We hope the pictures that Darren, and Joe, and Carly, and Kelly, and Craig, and Andre have created inspire people to think a bit differently about the pandemic, and what it’s been like to be “out of home” when we were all told to “stay at home”.

The Out of Home exhibition is at St Martin in the Fields, Central London, less than 100m from Trafalgar Square. The exhibition runs from 22nd April 2021 through the summer, and is open Thursday – Sunday. Admission is free.  www.outofhome.org.uk

All images: © the photographers, www.outofhome.org.uk

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