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25 Incredibly Detailed Black And White Portraits of the Homeless by Lee Jeffries
December 16, 2011 3:50 AM   Subscribe

Black And White Portraits of the Homeless "Lee Jeffries' career began as a sports photographer, capturing the beautiful game of football in Manchester. Then a chance meeting with a homeless woman living in the streets of London changed his life forever. He has since dedicated himself to capturing gripping portraits of the disenfranchised. Shooting exclusively in black and white, Lee Jeffries’ 135+ pictures can be viewed in his Flickr Photostream. The majority are closeup portraits with incredible detail. Each photograph exudes so much raw character and depth, you find yourself studying each shot with great intensity."
posted by parrot_person (42 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
having just checked out the full flicker set ::here:: what strikes me the hardest is how *young* some of the subjects are.
posted by Faintdreams at 4:28 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


faintdreams - really? I was thinking exactly the opposite.... I had been looking through the photos, thinking to myself "why are there hardly any young people in this set?"
posted by bradth27 at 6:23 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


It takes one:

mental illness
loan default
job loss
divorce with kids
death in the family w/ no means to provide for others
physical illness
medical bills beyond comprehension
......

for the dominio to tip forward and be one of us.
posted by stormpooper at 6:42 AM on December 16, 2011 [9 favorites]


At least three of the men in the portraits look unsettlingly like Alan Moore.
posted by jscalzi at 6:47 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The flickerset has a few youngsters; the FPP (the photographer's home page) looks like Jeffries was on a mission to find the oldest, the ugliest and the wrinkliest people on Earth. Although his bio claims From then onwards, his photographs portray his convictions and his compassion to the world, it is clear that this is hardly "the face of homelessness," and could easily make you feel like a voyeur at a freak show.
posted by kozad at 6:55 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always find these kinds of photographs problematic. Even if he has noble intentions, it just smacks of exploitation to me.
posted by chococat at 6:57 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would feel better about photographers doing this kind of thing if they had an "all proceeds of these prints go to homeless shelters and food banks and certainly not me" notice on their yellowkorner/flickr/whatever pages.
posted by Jairus at 7:04 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Haunting
posted by punkfloyd at 7:12 AM on December 16, 2011


How is this exploitation, compared to, say, war photography? I'm not trying to be argumentative, it was a serious question. I think the nature of photography is exploitative. I'm not saying it's a bad thing. But most photography that's not still-lifes you set up on your own exploits one thing or another. You're only borrowing images from the real world. The moments aren't yours, you're just using them.
I find it kind of interesting, if taken from the angle of "These are the people we ignore on a daily basis. Look at them. You see them here, yet why do you avert your eyes on the street?"
posted by FirstMateKate at 7:13 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Possible to say that all photos are exploitation? That said, the problem for me is that showing faces of those in need is not nearly the same as suggesting what should be done to change things. I know art is not supposed to do this but perhaps only make us aware of things, but I know that the number of sad stories in our nation is growing and growing. Sad and helpless faces, yes, but so what? Sort of like Dickens novels: we learn about conditions but get little more than Kindness would help.
posted by Postroad at 7:22 AM on December 16, 2011


I think we'd all do well to think twice before making a moral judgement without an intimate understanding of the situation and the people involved.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:22 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


How is this exploitation, compared to, say, war photography?

Well, in war photography, the photographer doesn't end up selling his photos for "end your tour of duty early" cards.

Photography of the homeless can be problematic because the photographer is profiting directly off the subjects of poverty, and in almost all cases doesn't return that profit to the subjects.
posted by Jairus at 7:23 AM on December 16, 2011


Derail aside, I've never really liked that style of black and white photography, where every pore stands out in stark contrast. It makes the subjects look simultaneously unreal and too real, just as bad HDR does.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 7:28 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wow.

jscalzi, I think the real point is that Alan Moore looks like a homeless person, and mentally ill. Which may be more than pure coincidence.

le morte de bea arthur, I can't help but feel there's some pushing of the contrast curve.

Regardless, this man knows a thing or two about taking a shot.

Wow.

(Remember folks: unless your portrait subjects are attractive Americans of at least middle-class, you are being exploitive. If your portrait subjects are attractive Americans of at least middle-class, you are supporting bigoted stereotypes.)
posted by IAmBroom at 7:47 AM on December 16, 2011 [3 favorites]


On the one hand, I think it is unreasonable to stipulate that someone should have to run their own homeless shelter or something in order to take photos of the homeless without it being exploitative. On the other hand, I am not personally impressed by his ability to take a photo and then drag the contrast slider all the way up to 100. I guess I'm not a big fan of highly processed photos in general, but this isn't even using post processing to create a unique aesthetic, it's just the most simplistic, brute force way to create some artificial super grittiness.
posted by snofoam at 7:50 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've never really liked that style of black and white photography

It's not so much a style of photography as a style of photoshopping.
posted by snofoam at 7:55 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Go to any first-year university Visual Arts photography critique and you'll see lots of pictures of homeless people. It's an obvious picture with built-in grit and realism and it seems to say something without saying anything. ("Homelessness is bad?")
Maybe this guy is paying them, maybe he's helping them get off the street and into a home. I can't know that, as he's given no context; only over-cooked close-ups of a nameless group of "the homeless" who he talked to before taking their picture. And the reaction as a whole seems to be "great picture!" so I'm left with the impression that they are still in that same situation while he's getting high-fives on Flickr.
The fact that talking about the subjects in his photos is considered a "derail" sort of illustrates my point.
posted by chococat at 7:57 AM on December 16, 2011 [8 favorites]


I like the pictures.
posted by bongo_x at 9:06 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Lee isn't a member so can't reply directly, but asked if I'd share these points:


1. All my subjects receive some form of payment.
2. I run marathons each year and raise funds for shelter
3. I have donated numerous camera prizes to homeless charities and the troops in Afghanistan.
4. Donated prints to charity auctions in LA with all proceeds going to the missions there.
5. My blurb book has all profits donated to the homeless shelters in LA.
6. Finally, I think its important to stress that my photographic expeditions are exactly that...they are self funded and it costs quite a bit of money to get on a plane to go to LA for example.

Hope that clears things up.

Cheers

Lee
posted by blaneyphoto at 9:16 AM on December 16, 2011 [5 favorites]


Dear Lee: It's important to put these things in your bio and press releases about relevant work, for many reasons. Not the least of which is that people don't have to guess about your motivations!
posted by Jairus at 9:24 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dear Jairus: I don't happen to believe that Lee should have to defend his art from questions about his motivations.

That's called "freedom of expression".
posted by IAmBroom at 9:47 AM on December 16, 2011


Dear Jairus: I don't happen to believe that Lee should have to defend his art from questions about his motivations.

That's called "freedom of expression".


Lee doesn't "have" to do anything. But he should be aware that if he doesn't give background information when profiting with marginalized communities, he may be accused of exploitation.

That's called "common fucking sense".
posted by Jairus at 9:50 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, it's called "the likelihood of people on the internet being judgmental".
posted by IAmBroom at 9:51 AM on December 16, 2011


No, it's called "the likelihood of people on the internet being judgmental".

Like I said, common fucking sense.
posted by Jairus at 9:52 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't really understand why some people feel that photographers have to justify their work to a degree that doesn't seem to be expected from others. Metafilter can sustain posts of articles about the homeless or Russian drug addicts or whatever without anyone accusing the reporter of exploitation. I don't remember anyone slamming Crystal Waters for exploiting the homeless when "Gypsy Woman" came out. Obviously sometimes people working in different media face accusations of exploitation at times, but it seems to be de rigueur to raise these issues when the medium is photography.

Perhaps there's a good explanation, but it really doesn't seem fair or logical to me.
posted by snofoam at 10:09 AM on December 16, 2011


I don't know Crystal Waters, was "Gypsy Woman" sung by a homeless person?

This is why I personally raised this issue here: I have been homeless. I have had people take pictures of me while I have been homeless.

And if I had found out that someone was making money selling a photo of my homeless face online for 735 Euro while I was begging in the streets for change and trying not to get frostbite, I would have lost my shit.
posted by Jairus at 10:18 AM on December 16, 2011 [2 favorites]


Jairus, I can totally see how you would feel that way. I still think that there is an assumption of exploitation that many people make more quickly or more easily with photography than other media. I wouldn't say it is universal, but it seems common to me. I think there are certain reasons why it is more likely, because photography is very personal, because people may consider the value of the photo comes from the subject as much as the photographer, etc. This doesn't really make sense to me. While some photographers may be exploiting their subjects, I don't think I would assume it is more common amongst photographers than anyone else.
posted by snofoam at 10:47 AM on December 16, 2011


It's not that I think it's more common with photographers, snofoam; it's that I think it's common to people of all disciplines who work with the marginalized.
posted by Jairus at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2011


Jairus, I totally agree that being wary/skeptical/suspicious (not sure of the best word) of anyone who is making money from the disadvantaged makes complete sense. I was just reflecting on my perception that people on average seem to be more concerned with exploitation when photography is the medium.
posted by snofoam at 10:56 AM on December 16, 2011


Is it exploitive to show the subject where it touches someone to feel compelled to do something more?

Is it exploitive for media and every day common people to show photos of the planes hitting the twin towers?

Or the bombing of Pearl Harbor?

Or the photos of Kennedys, King, and Reagan being shot?

Unless you're in porn, I just don't see any photography as exploitive and profiting off of others. It's art and/or a message. Good art/photography/messages move you.

I may not donate to a shelter, but it does make me aware of my own actions of greed, waste, and unappreciativeness. To me, that's impactful. Helps me not forget that this was someone who had a family, was a child at one point, once had dreams. I said it before, no one says "I want to be homeless when I grow up." It has always been my biggest fear (thanks to my mom putting it in my head).
posted by stormpooper at 11:43 AM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


Jeffries is under no obligation to satisfy anyone's curiosity about his motivation. It is a pleasant surprise that he did. Arguments about the morality of photography are not new, and nothing new on the subject will be discussed in this thread, but if it serves to exercise typing fingers then I suppose it isn't a total waste.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 12:06 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


it's called "the likelihood of people on the internet being judgmental"

I thought it was called "critique."
You know, discussing your opinion of a piece of art with others. I would hope that the photographer would want people to talk about his images and the affect they have on people. Most artists I've known invite discussion. Otherwise the art exists in a vacuum and it's meaningless.
"Here is some art I made. Just look at it and don't say anything."
I have my opinion, you have yours. Isn't that awesome?

Arguments about the morality of photography are not new, and nothing new on the subject will be discussed in this thread

Right. So people should just shut up and stop talking about it?
Arguments about certain kinds of photographs are probably as old as photographs of the disenfranchised. I think it's healthy to talk about things, sorry you're so bored of it.

I still think that there is an assumption of exploitation that many people make more quickly or more easily with photography than other media

Although yes, I do think that a big close up of someone's face at a really difficult time in their life, (and lumping them into a nameless collection of "the homeless") is different than words about them in an article, I think it's an issue of context as well. And those sad pictures in the context of a "great pictures!" Flickr pool or a coffee-table book or a pretty gallery opening kind of grosses me out, regardless of whether you pay them or not. That's the vibe that I got. I looked for names of the people or their stories but I only saw a brief description and the photographer's name, so that's what I came away with, based on that context.

It's not just photographs, though. This is a totally different thing but off the top of my head, the song "Ohio" stands out. I'm a huge Neil Young fan and it's a great song, but it was pretty much blood money they got for that song. Neil Young has stated that he felt weird about getting money from it.
posted by chococat at 1:17 PM on December 16, 2011


I think the idea of photography being more prone to accusations of exploitation than other media is pretty interesting. The possible reasons that come to my mind touch on a lot of different angles. For example, the "big close-up of someone's face" aspect, to me, is a by-product of the fact that, often, portraits are just that. It's a type of photo, that is also an intensely personal thing. There's also the notion that photographers are just capturing something that already exists, which is kind of true. But, I think, only in photography do people seeing a photo say "Wow! You have an awesome camera." No one sees a painting and says, "You must have amazing paintbrushes!"

In another direction, someone like chococat might be looking for the names of the subjects in photos, but not expect the shooting victims to be named in "Ohio" or even expect their names to be in the liner notes of the album. There are even certain pop culture precedents that come into play, like if a rock band does a song about homelessness or starvation that of course some of the proceeds go to charity, because it's been established that usually that's what happens. Probably that same assumption does not carry over to photographers, even if possibly the same percentage of time photographers dealing with this subject matter also donate to the relevant causes.

There's also perhaps something to be said about the line between journalism and art, which is perhaps most ambiguous in photography (not all photography, of course). Photography, maybe more than many media, can be artistic and documentary at the same time, creating ambiguity around the purpose of the photos.

Anyhow, this isn't an argument for or against anything or anyone, but I think photos like this are an interesting window into our perception of what photography actually is.
posted by snofoam at 1:50 PM on December 16, 2011


Addendum: I guess I am putting forth the argument that there is more to be gained from discussing the perception of exploitation in photography than the exercise of fingers, which is close to arguing against what tapesonthefloor posted, although not exactly.
posted by snofoam at 1:57 PM on December 16, 2011


someone like chococat might be looking for the names of the subjects in photos, but not expect the shooting victims to be named in "Ohio" or even expect their names to be in the liner notes of the album

Because it was this enormous, outrageously horrible thing that happened and all four of their names were all over the news and everybody knows everything about it.
Anyway, it's apples and oranges and "Ohio" was a stupid example; I knew it after I typed it.

Now that was a derail; sorry.
posted by chococat at 2:11 PM on December 16, 2011


I will not photograph decorative old tramps with hopelessly entangled white whiskers and shiny noses.

- The Hippocratic Oath of a Photographer, M.F. Agha, 1937.
posted by scose at 5:14 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Hippocratic Oath of a Photographer, M.F. Agha, 1937.
Exactly. That's fucking awesome.
In my first year at university, I had a visual arts prof in photography who had one rule:
No pictures of animals or children.
posted by chococat at 6:39 PM on December 16, 2011


Ansel Adams has a photo, "Trailer Camp Children, Richmond, California, 1944" that I really like. It's a portrait, not the category of photography that Ansel Adams is most famous for. I think a really excellent one however, that manages to tell a complex story about the subjects: three children (presumably in a family). The differing expressions of the differing ages of children, from the toddler up to the oldest brother (early teens?), are really interesting. As well, the composition, with an open comic book on the bed next to where the children are sitting, and the oldest one holding the other two kind of protectively. To me, it shows hardship (those kids look hungry, and the oldest looks like he has more than his share of the weight of the world), and also some of the positive things that can be present in people's lives even when many resources are lacking (love and a few small, treasured diversions or pleasures, represented by the comic book). I find it to be a very humanizing portrait.

Admittedly it's likely quite posed, and the photos in the original post are likely less posed. They do not feel as humanizing to me. They seem to focus on one detail -- just grittiness. My reaction to these photos is that they feel very reductive to me, in that sense. Also, many of the portraits (especially the people with both hands over their mouths, or with skin that appears gnarled like tree bark due to the contrast) call to mind dryads (the Tom Bombadil post and following links about the Green Man there may have predisposed me to this, admittedly), and seem to me to turn their subjects into something not-human. I find this effect very artistically interesting. The subjects' homelessness seems to be beside the point, though, and mentioning it kind of turns the photos into poverty porn for me.
posted by eviemath at 7:26 PM on December 16, 2011


Wow. I am amazed and disappointed at the direction these comments have taken. I was trying to share something that I personally found beautiful and interesting. Sad to see that it resulted in bashing the photographer both on artistic and moral grounds.
posted by parrot_person at 7:30 PM on December 16, 2011 [1 favorite]


To be fair, I do find them very artistically interesting in portraying well-weathered people as trees/pagan or middle earth tree spirits of some sort. I think that's a cool analogy. I have not seen photos that made that connection before, so (to the best of my knowledge) they are also quite original works of art in that sense (I don't know enough about the technicalities to comment about whether the technique is particularly original or not, but the end effect seems to be).

(But yeah, on moral grounds, the work doesn't move or thrill me.)
posted by eviemath at 7:46 PM on December 16, 2011


parrot_person, I think that there are two kinds of people in these threads. There are those who have participated in photography critique, and those who haven't. When you initially look at these images, they do seem powerful. They are powerful. These are real people, and it is hard to look at. However, they are heavily photoshopped, taken with a distorting lens, taken with a lens that is not really in the correct focus, and manipulated so that the people seem more 'weary' and 'weathered' than they probably are in real life. Additionally, this idea is tired and has been done many times.


TLDR: If you're going to present these homeless persons in such a horrific and negative light, at least give them the dignity of having their noses in focus.
posted by 200burritos at 9:13 AM on December 17, 2011 [1 favorite]


I will not photograph decorative old tramps with hopelessly entangled white whiskers and shiny noses.

- The Hippocratic Oath of a Photographer, M.F. Agha, 1937.


Um, the very end of that oath shows its tongue-in-cheek nature: "in fact, if I can help it, I will refrain from taking any pictures of any description, under any pretext whatsoever."

Are you really saying no one should take any photographs, or are you just quoting out of context so it appears that the oath supports your contention that this photographer should be bashed for his subject matter?
posted by parrot_person at 12:54 AM on December 22, 2011


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