Inzajeano Latif first met Wayne in November 2020. The two have been collaborating ever since: Wayne, documenting his own life using a Polaroid camera, Latif offering photographic mentorship while creating a body of work about the lives of people who have experienced homelessness in London.
Wayne is one of several people currently experiencing homelessness taking part in the project, a commission organised by Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) – a UK-based charity that works to prevent suicide – in collaboration with 1854. The project offers an intimate and honest insight into homelessness in the capital through the medium of photography.
“I have approached this project aware that these people are all extremely individual, each with very individual experiences.” says Latif, a London-based photographer whose interest lies in providing a platform for minorities who are often invisible to, or forgotten by, society. The commission participants range in age, from mid-20s to early-70s. Each story is unique. “They have all been homeless in different ways,” says Latif. “It is not necessarily what people would associate homelessness with, which I think is important.”
There is Dee, a grandmother happily married for 53 years, who became homeless following an accident at work as a live-in carer. “I worked out things to do and found nature and parks to sit in,” she says, recalling her time homeless in London, “museums and art galleries to spend my days, as this was so very enjoyable. Occasionally I would sit in Westminster Cathedral after the service and read my book in a quiet corner.” There is also Kerry, now, by her own admission, a “strong, confident, resilient 36-year-old woman” who first became homeless aged 14. Curtis, whose life started “spiralling out of control” after the death of his father, a black cab driver, and the loss of the family house in the stock market recession. And Wayne, who has been homeless for a number of years. “I found myself on the streets trying to survive by taking drugs to lose hours of the day, not wanting to look at myself,” he writes. “Had moments of being on the precipice of insanity. Fortunately, somehow, I found photography to be a vice to slightly escape and be cynical about my situation. Not realising that on occasions I capture great pictures.”
The project has not been without its challenges. It was in February 2020 that an open call for the commission was announced. It is hard to imagine life without the restrictions imposed by Covid-19, but back then much of the UK was going about life acutely unaware of what was around the corner. In a matter of weeks, Covid-19 took hold; the UK went into lockdown and almost everything came to a grinding halt. It was not until October 2020 that Latif was able to start the commission and the participants, who have all experienced homelessness, were given a Polaroid camera. At the end of October, merely a few weeks later, the UK went into a second lockdown. By January, a third. But the project didn’t stop, rather it changed course.
“I had to have a Plan A, B, C and D and think in a spontaneous way,” says Latif. Unable to photograph the participants or meet them in person, Latif used the time afforded by lockdown to get to know the individuals and form relationships. Latif and the participants would speak on the phone, email and video call. “I have had a chance to get to know most of them in a fairly intimate way,” he says. “Having more time has been a blessing. I have been able to really bond with them and give them a lot more mentorship.” While Latif was unable to take his own photographs during this time, the homeless participants each had a camera, many taking photographs throughout the lockdowns.
It is hard to find somebody who has not struggled as a result of the pandemic; some to a lesser, some to a much greater extent. According to research by the Legatum Institute, almost 700,000 people have been driven into poverty by the Covid-19 crisis in the UK. More than 15 million people – 23% of the UK population – are currently living in poverty. “Society has been shook,” reflects Latif. “There is a chunk of the middle class who have really felt the pressure – the torment that Covid-19 has had on their livelihoods. Then imagine the people that I am photographing. They have lived this way nearly all their lives, or most of their lives. Even in the last year, many people still haven’t experienced anything like what these people go through.”
Mental health is at the fore. “I have been very cautious of the anxieties, stress and mental health issues that a lot of the participants are going through,” says Latif. In some instances, a person’s struggles with their mental health have led to them becoming homeless. “I’ve seen and felt that mental health has been a core factor for most of the participants,” continues Latif. “It is a key factor that has led to other things. Had society, parents and loved one’s been better-equipped [to deal with these mental health issues], I do think that things might have been different for these people.”
Now April 2021 and as the UK begins to open up with lockdown restrictions gradually easing, Latif has had a small window to get out and spend time with the project’s participants in person. “I saw Kerry this morning and spent a few hours with her. She is doing so well, she’s really into the whole thing,” he says. “Then, I went up to North London and saw Curtis and spent some time taking more portraits. He took me to some areas around London that he likes and we took some photographs there.” The rest of the week has taken a similar form: “I start the day early and split it up – because of the anxiety and mental health issues – meeting two participants a day. I find this is a good and healthy balance for them and allows me to meet them a few times on different days.”
The pandemic has also forced Latif to reconsider his photographic approach to the commission. He started with a certain visual identity in mind but the restrictions of the pandemic meant he had to change tack. “I have had to think of a different approach that can be equally powerful, honest and truthful,” he says. “There is no doubt it has been challenging.” There have been other considerations too. Balancing the individuality of each of the subjects and their stories with the unity required of a cohesive body of work is undoubtedly challenging. “There needs to be an aesthetic that filters, at least visually, through all the images,” Latif says, “but at the same time each story is extremely individual.”
This commission is far greater than a body of work. Latif has spent months getting to know the project’s participants, forming bonds and a degree of understanding of each of their individual situations. Through the final series – both Latif’s and the Polaroid images – these individuals will be heard, their lived experiences seen. In doing so the dominant and often stereotypical narrative of homelessness challenged. “It is important that this work leads to positive conversations,” reflects Latif, “whether about homelessness, identity, gender, race.”
In this sense, it has always been important to Latif that he can relate to the participants on some level. “I have not been homeless but when it comes to the issues they have gone through, I can certainly relate,” he says. “There have been times in my life where I’ve felt lost and hopeless due to various circumstances. Being a brown man in London back in the day was tough. Trying to understand why things don’t go your way is hard, it grates on your mental health, you start thinking it’s you that is the problem and this leads you to some dark places.
“I guess that these similarities mean I am able to understand some aspects of their struggle. It has also made me appreciate my own journey.”
Each of the participants’ projects will be published on 1854.photography throughout June.