Conditions for homeless people in San Francisco, California are thought to be among the worst in the world. Though it consistently ranks among the top three most expensive places to live in the US, in a report from September 2018, UN special rapporteur Leilina Farha condemned the “cruel and inhumane treatment” of homeless people in San Francisco as “a violation of multiple human rights”.
German photographer Jana Sophia Nolle first visited the city in 2016, and was struck by this shocking disparity between the rich and poor. According to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, on any given night, more than 7,000 people experience homelessness, with at least 4,000 sleeping unsheltered. At the same time, the city is home to Silicone Valley, and half of all the tech billionaires in the world. “I noticed that although these two worlds share a sidewalk, they are so disconnected in daily life,” says Nolle, “For me, this whole project was about forming human connections and relationships”.
Nolle has spent the past two years travelling between Berlin and San Francisco, making contacts with both the upper class and homeless to create Living Room. The first edition of her book has sold out – a second edition is planned for 2020 – but the project will be shown globally at upcoming photo festivals in Europe, as well as in a group show in San Francisco this summer.
Alongside making art, Nolle is an international election observer, and has worked in countries like Nepal, Belarus, Albania, and Myanmar – where she met her boyfriend, a native San Franciscan. Nolle’s boyfriend comes from a family of philanthropists, and it was in his living room that she made the first photographs for this project. Using those as examples, along with a letter to explain what she was doing, Nolle was able to convince other living room owners to let her use their homes. “Many people were worried I’d be bringing in dirty, smelly structures, or even insects,” says Nolle, “their participation was dependant on trust.”
Nolle chose to focus on the home, because she believes that having a permanent place for privacy and security is one of our fundamental human needs. “Besides having nothing on the street and trying to survive with basics, one thing that everyone struggled with was the lack of privacy and protection. I wanted to reconstruct these makeshift homes, which are often created out of necessity and desperation”.
Nolle approached homeless people on the street, who shared their stories and drew diagrams of their shelters – which are included in the book. She tried to mimic the shelters as best she could, collecting cardboard, shopping trolleys, and broken furniture off the street, or sourcing specific parts from local shops. Some homeless people gave her parts of their shelter in exchange for new materials.
Again and again, Nolle re-situated the structures within luxurious livings rooms, against crowded bookshelves and paintings in gilded frames. She was interested in how the room was a “place for representation”. “If you have a living room you can decorate it, make it your own, have your personality mirrored in your choice of belongings. I noticed that homeless people try to do the same with what they have,” Nolle explains, “to me, these rooms are similar to a stage”.
Nolle hopes that the project will challenge our perceptions of living space, and put weight on the importance of refuge and security. “It might reveal that despite one’s means, we all seek to create meaning and understanding through the place we call home”
Living Room by Jana Sophia Nolle will be shown at Copenhagen Photo Festival, Denmark (06-16 June), at Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco (June 29 – August 31) and Voies Off Festival, Fotohaus Paris I Berlin Arles, (July 3 – 31)