Anthony Luvera: “Homelessness is a structural problem”

Over the last decade, the UK’s homelessness crisis has reached an all-time high. Latest research by Shelter estimates that 320,000 people — more than the population of the city of Newcastle — are experiencing homelessness, and in 2018, an estimated 726 homeless people died in England and Wales, a 22 per cent rise from 2017. At the end of last year, the number of households living in temporary accommodation was at its highest level in more than a decade, with more than 86,000 households currently in temporary accommodation, including 127,000 children.

If you live in the UK, these facts may not be shocking. Homelessness is arguably the most visible consequence of the past decade of austerity, particularly in the country’s capital, where the only way you can ignore it is by averting your eyes. As such, it is becoming increasingly important that this experience is represented by more than just news reports and statistics, and that these voices are given a platform on which to be seen and heard.

Photographer Anthony Luvera has been collaborating with people who have experienced homelessness for over 15 years, producing thousands of photographs, as well as videos, sound recordings, and ongoing research projects in cities and towns across the UK including Brighton, Belfast, and London. Through a collaborative approach, Luvera’s work attempts to shift the narratives surrounding homelessness, and bring to light how these problems are amplified through the way that society is structured.

Photograph by Ady Baldwin from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.

Currently, on show at The Gallery at Foyles, Soho, central London, Anthony Luvera: Taking Place presents two projects: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and Assembly. For the latter, Luvera invited participants to capture and record their experiences using disposable cameras and digital sound recorders. In addition to this, he worked with the participants to produce assisted self-portraits in locations that they felt were important to them. The finished project presents these images and soundscapes alongside screen grabs from the editing process, and photographs of them working together.

“One of the things I’m really aware of is that the process of making the work is as much the practice as the product and finished images,” says Luvera. “I’m keen to find ways to disrupt the traditional use of photography, where the photographer stands behind the camera and points at their subject, and to see if we can reassemble that to create a more nuanced representation of the person in the picture.”

Assisted Self-Portrait of Momodou Njie from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.
Screenshot from the making of Assisted Self-Portrait of Momodou Njie from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.

Alongside Assembly, Luvera is exhibiting his ongoing research project, FAQ, developed in collaboration with Gerald Mclaverty, who is currently homeless in Brighton. The project began in 2014, motivated by the lack of information that Luvera and Mclaverty felt was available to people at risk of homelessness. Rather than providing useful advice, the leaflets distributed by charities or the government seemed to exist as marketing for the activities of each organisation.

Photograph by Anthony Luvera from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.

The pair drafted an email written from Mclaverty’s perspective and detailing his experience of homelessness, and emailed it to 44 of the largest local authorities in the UK by population, requesting information about shelter, personal safety, food, and communication: Where can I go for something to eat and drink? Where can I find shelter when it is raining or snowing? Where can I sleep during the night that is safe?

“We thought we might get some useful information, but what we got was a bunch of ‘out-of-office’ replies. Most of them didn’t reply at all,” says Luvera. A couple of years later, the photographer built up a relationship with the Museum of Homelessness in London and decided to re-do the project. This time they sent out 61 emails, and received a similar response: only four local authorities responded. This data was then analysed and designed into posters that were displayed on a 13-metre wall at Tate Liverpool in January 2018.

Assisted Self-Portrait of Odette Antoniou from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.
Screenshot from the making of Assisted Self-Portrait of Odette Antoniou from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.

Three months later in April 2018, the UK parliament introduced The Homelessness Reduction Act, the biggest change to homelessness legislation in 40 years, which meant that local councils now have a duty to help people who are homeless and protect those who are in danger of losing their homes. Seeing this as an important milestone towards positive change, a year later, Luvera and Mclaverty sent out another round of emails. To their disappointment, the results had only marginally improved: compared to seven per cent in 2017, only nine per cent of local councils, which is 10 out of 110, responded in 2019.

The current exhibition at The Gallery at Foyles, located on the fifth floor of the Foyles bookshop in Soho, is an amalgamation of this data, displayed via graphics, maps and posters, presented alongside Assembly. For Luvera, it is important that this work is visible in the public realm — Luvera’s first exhibition of his work with people experiencing homelessness was in 2015 across 12 stations in the London Underground. “I want to reach unexpected audiences in unexpected ways,” says Luvera. “I was so keen to have this exhibition because people come into the building prepared to engage with ideas, and prepared to think.”

Photograph by Gerald Mclaverty from Assembly by Anthony Luvera.

Luvera is highly aware of the negative tropes common to the representation of homeless people, which tend to focus on their biography or the things that went wrong in their lives, and is keen to work against these trends. “Homelessness is a structural problem. It is a product of the way our society is organised,” he says. “We need to shift the conversation surrounding it and bring justice to how these problems are replicated.”

Anthony Luvera: Taking Place is on show at The Gallery at Foyles in Soho, London, until 29 February. A series of panel discussions will be taking place on 27 February, as well as a live performance from The Choir with No Name that evening.

Installation view at The Gallery at Foyles.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner worked as an editor at BJP between 2018 and 2023. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Elephant, Gal-dem, The Face, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.