World Homelessness Day was born when aid workers from around the world started talking about people experiencing homelessness in their countries – with an emphasis on giving hands-on aid that was sensitive to local needs, while being aware of the global problem.
Today, we want to help raise awareness in our own community by sharing our Homeless in COVID photography project and introducing you to some of the people we met during lockdown.
The Homeless in COVID project came into being when professional photographer Iain McLean started volunteering with us at our Warehouse in April. Iain wanted to work with a charity during the COVID-19 pandemic to show the work they were doing. This turned into a set of photographs showing the people we work with, with the intention of challenging the common perception of homelessness.
Iain told us “Simon Community Scotland were fairly local to me and I was already aware of them and the work they do, so I contacted Hugh Hill (Director of Services and Development) and put my idea to him. Happily he agreed – in my experience it is rare to be given the opportunity to work with an organisation who encourage you to pursue a creative idea. A refreshing experience!
I initially did some volunteering in the warehouse – sorting clothes and helping load and unload food deliveries – all the while taking some casual portraits and recording the events. This seemed to go well. We then visited the Ibis Hotel where I met more Simon Community staff and had a look around. Once I’d established some good relationships I was then given access to other services to meet and photograph both staff and service users.”
Iain began to build up a bank of images to demonstrate the work of SCS but alongside this he started work on the project that became Homeless in COVID. Iain worked to gain the trust and consent of everyone he photographed and found that his perception of people who experience homelessness was being challenged – the more people he met, the more he realised that anyone could be affected. It was really just down to circumstance.
He told us that “I had never worked with people experiencing homelessness before but it was a profound and moving experience. My expectations were probably the same as most people’s, namely that I’d be meeting down-at-heel people with substance and/or mental health problems. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve met travellers, religious people, immigrants, refugees, professional people, young and old, all races and genders. Many of them victims of circumstance.”
Iain wanted to create a set of portraits challenging the common perception of what someone experiencing homeless should look like. As well as the portraits, items were photographed in the hand of the sitter, with the hand being a metaphor for hope and openness as well as being symbolic of the COVID crisis – hand cleanliness etc.
Iain said “I felt the portraits needed more than just a short explanation of the person and their circumstances so used the idea of ‘comfort’ during this troubled time to give the work some extra depth. The white background was a deliberate act to take the person away from any cliched location and to present them as a dignified, empowered person. A blank canvas.”
Our service users were delighted when they saw their images, both on the camera and in print. Most kept their print but one person asked Iain to send it to his mother in the South of England “I can’t express how happy I was to receive the photos of my son. It was so kind of you to go to the trouble of sending them. I was greatly relieved to see him looking both well and well turned out and I must say in good spirits too. I was glad to get your positive observations of my son. Thank you so much for your kindness.”
We were so pleased to be able to exhibit Iain’s photos as we launched our new multi-agency Access Hub in Glasgow. This new innovative service – in a beautiful, custom-designed venue – is all about making it much easier for people to get the support they need. To mark the occasion we also produced a newspaper featuring the portraits and some of the stories behind them.
Photography by Iain McLean.