After purchasing a used EOS Canon T2i Rebel from a local hockshop in the summer of 2012, Leah was ready and equipped to begin her project, "Humanizing the Homeless." With the help of her father she began her storytelling through portraiture photography and a detailed collection of her subject's experiences. One of her photographs was awarded first place in the Blue Mountain Foundation of the Arts Juried Art Show. Leah was also recently the subject of a documentary that aired on CBC’s ‘The National’.
Leah hopes to help humanize individuals experiencing homelessness and to draw attention to their circumstance. By sharing their stories, Leah reduces the stigma and societal misconceptions surrounding homelessness.
We caught up with Leah to discuss her inspiration behind the project and the incredibly special people she has met.
Winslow: Tell us about your project, Humanizing the Homeless.
Leah Denbok: I began this project in 2015 when I was 15 years old. I was encouraged to do so in part, by my mentor Joel Sartore, who is a National Geographic photographer. He told me that, in his experience, all successful photographers focus on a particular genre. In his opinion my strength was portraiture.
I first took pictures of seniors in nursing homes. However, this soon became impractical because of problems with getting consent. It was then that my dad, who is also my manager, suggested that I photograph people experiencing homelessness. He got this idea after seeing the work of Lee Jeffries. Within a week I, (with my dad in tow) was in Toronto photographing people on the street. When I showed these photos to Joel he said, “I love these! They take your work to a whole new level. Keep it up!”
I think I was also influenced to photograph people experiencing homelessness—even if only subconsciously—by the story of my mother who was once homeless herself. As a young child of three she was found, alone and bleeding from her head, by a police officer in Kolkata, India. Knowing that Mother Teresa never turned any children away, he took Leah to her orphanage where she was raised by her until, at the age of five, she was adopted by a family from Stayner, ON.
In 2017 I published my first book entitled Nowhere to Call Home—Photographs and Stories of the Homeless, Volume One. Volume Two was just released. Although volumes one and two were self-published by Friesen Press in BC, I have just signed a contract with Austin Macauley Publishers in the UK, a traditional publisher, to publish volume three. From the beginning I have always donated 100% of the royalties from the sale of my books to homeless shelters, as I don’t think it would be right for me to profit, financially, off of people who have nothing.
Winslow: What have you learned through the development of this project? What conversations do you hope that will come out of your work?
Leah Denbok: When my dad first suggested that I begin photographing people experiencing homelessness, I was taken aback by the idea. Everything I had heard about these people was negative—for example, they are all lazy, drug addicts with mental illnesses. I have found this is often not the case. Having now photographed about 400 people experiencing homelessness over the past three years, I have found them often to be very friendly and pleasant people to talk with. Beaten down by life and with literally nothing but the shirts on their backs, they are humble and unpretentious people who are grateful for any act of kindness shown to them.
I have also come to see that homelessness is far more complex than most people are aware. The leading cause of this problem is not laziness or mental illness, but the lack of affordable housing and poverty. Also, many of these people have experienced terrible misfortune that could happen to any of us.
Take, for example, Dexter, who lives in a tent under the Gardiner Expressway. He told me that he did three tours of duty in Iraq before being captured and tortured. (He has several scars on his arms and shoulders to prove it.) His wife and son were also killed by a drunk driver. And although he called himself a “dumb donkey”, he speaks no less than thirteen languages.
Or consider Kimberly, who lives in Brisbane, Australia. She told me that a couple of years ago that she, along with her husband and seven kids, had a house of their own, but then her house burned down. Since she could no longer put a roof over the heads of her children, they were taken by Children’s Aid. She wants to find a job but can’t since she lost all of her identification in the fire. She said she feels as if everyone is against her. When I met Kimberly, her and her husband were living under a bridge.
Winslow: As a photography student, your time for a series like this must be limited. Do you have any tips for students on managing their assigned work while pursuing side projects?
Leah Denbok: I’m a first year Bachelor of Photography student at Sheridan College in Oakville. Juggling my homelessness project with my school work has been very difficult, but my professors have been very supportive. They’ve also been very patient with me. Already I’ve had to ask for, and been given, several extensions.
As far as any advice I would give to students who, like me, are trying to juggle school work with side projects, I would say this: Try to find a school with understanding professors! Also, you should be willing to accept help from anyone who offers it (within reason). As I mentioned earlier, my dad has been my manager since day one. (He jokes that this is his second full-time job.) His help has been invaluable.
Winslow: Would you say your photography has had any influence over any of your
other artistic work or life in general?
Leah Denbok: When I first began photographing people experiencing homelessness, I did so largely for artistic reasons. Their faces were interesting. They told a story. However, as I’ve met these people over the years and heard their stories my empathy for them has grown.
Lucy, who is on the cover of my first book, is a case and point. When I first met her beside the Eaton Centre in 2017 she told us that she had once had big dreams of being a writer, but then she got addicted to opioids. She also excitedly told us that she was hopeful of getting a place of her own through transitional housing. When I next saw her several months later she was sleeping on a broken up cardboard box on Dundas Street. At one point she woke up and looked around. She looked terrible, and as this was late fall, my dad and I wondered how she was going to survive the coming winter. When we didn’t see her for about six months, and we began to worry that she had died. When we ran into her again in the spring of the following year she was dressed nicely and looked much happier. Although still on opioids she had found a place through transitional housing. When I gave her a copy of my book with her on the cover she was ecstatic. She began jumping up and down yelling “woohoo!" Sadly, a couple of weeks ago, we ran into Lucy’s boyfriend Rhylie beside the Eaton Centre. He told us with tears in his eyes, that Lucy was in bad shape in the hospital. He then said, “thank you so much for putting Lucy in your book. It meant so much to her. It made her feel human.” Needless to say, I’ve come to care very deeply for Lucy and often think about her. I hope she’s okay.
Winslow: What's next for you?
Leah Denbok: I intend to continue public speaking about my work and having exhibits regularly. I have an upcoming exhibit in January at the Columbus Centre in North York. I’ve also been invited to attend ARTWALK NY at the end of November, where one of my photos is being auctioned off as a fundraiser. I’m also supposed to begin working with a videographer on a documentary about me that the videographer intends to pitch to CBC Arts. I intend to continue on my mission of changing the general public's perception of people experiencing homelessness by recording their photographs and stories in as many cities around the world as I can.