A new book of portraits reveals the reality of experiencing homelessness in the UK

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Marc Davenant’s Outsiders aims to raise public awareness, amplify marginalised voices, and act as a call to action

Between January and March 2022, homelessness in England rose by 11 percent. Almost 75,000 households in the UK – more than a quarter of which are families with children – became homeless. These figures are only set to rise as the country hurtles towards the worst cost of living crisis since the 1950s. 

For the last six years, Marc Davenant has been working with people experiencing homelessness. His photobook Outsiders presents their stories. Published by Bluecoat Press, its goals are four-fold: to raise public awareness, to amplify marginalised voices, to encourage the public to interact with people experiencing homelessness, and to act as a call to action.

Here, Davenant reflects on the project, and his considered approach to documenting marginalised communities.

When and why did you start the project?

In 2016, I came across a group of people who were experiencing homelessness in Soho. One in particular caught my eye, because I recognised his accent as being local to where I grew up. His name was Stephen. He became homeless in Newcastle following the death of his son. He came to London to set up a street kitchen to help others, but got taken by the drink again. I asked to take his photograph, and from this Outsiders was born. I decided I would try to capture a snapshot of homelessness using the broader definition of anyone who lacked a habitable home environment. This included rough sleepers, people living in substandard housing, or those in cramped conditions. 

Charlie had been homeless for five years. He said how important his dog was to him when sleeping rough, providing company and something to care for. © Marc Davenant.

How did you meet the participants, and how did you gain their trust to be part of this project? 

The charity Shelter was a great help when it came to connecting me with people who were living in substandard housing. For those photographs, trust was primarily representative of the charity. Catherine Govier from Shelter was the cornerstone of most of those relationships. They trusted her implicitly and loaned me their trust through her. With other participants, I built trust by doing presentations at charities such as Back on Track and Inspiring Change Manchester, or occasionally in the common areas of homelessness shelters. Some people volunteered to take part after that. 

Building trust for the street homelessness phase of the project was quite difficult. There is an imbalance of power and people may be suffering from mental health conditions, be abusing substances or could be survivors of domestic violence. My normal approach was to speak with them first, ask about their wellbeing and listen to what they had to say. I had to be sure that they were capable of giving informed consent, and if people were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, then I wouldn’t take any photographs. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when trying to win trust in a project like this. You have to be open and honest, give people respect, never be patronising, show real empathy and pick up the non-verbal signals when interacting with them. Some people don’t want to be photographed, but that is no reason to abruptly end a conversation. 

Inreece was living in temporary accommodation in what is known as a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO) having been placed there by the local council. The single room which she shared with her daughter was very small, damp and at the top of the house up multiple narrow flights of stairs. It was dark and unwelcoming. © Marc Davenant.

Photography has a history of exploitation when it comes to documenting marginalised communities. How did you avoid this?

I developed a number of ground rules: gain informed consent, give people the option of withdrawing it, and anonymising identities if necessary or desired. It is inevitable that a project like this will attract criticism for being exploitative, but it isn’t difficult to ensure that it isn’t. The first step is to treat people the way you’d like to be treated, and to be transparent about how their images and stories will be presented. I am a working-class photographer, and lived in various slums in London in the early 80s. I know what it’s like to live in a property that is unfit for habitation, which has no heating, is damp, and infested with rats. This gave me a different perspective in my approach, but the focus of this work in every respect is the participants.

Garth has been street homeless on and off since he was 14 years old. He said that charities which aim to help those experiencing homelessness are very helpful and do make a lot of difference when living on the street. © Marc Davenant.

What kind of action would you urge readers to take in tackling the homelessness crisis?

Many of the societal problems which underpin homelessness seem intractable and beyond our ability to resolve. But on an individual level, we all have the ability to make the lives of those who are experiencing homelessness a little better. Acknowledge them, make eye contact, and share some time and kind words. They are people, and a little human interaction can make an enormous difference to an existence that is otherwise bleak. Supporting charities such as Shelter – which I worked closely with on the project – lobbying politicians, or adding your name to campaigns for better social housing can also make a big difference.

Outsiders by Marc Davenant is published by Bluecoat Press. An exhibition of the work will be shown at Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead from October 2023.

Marigold Warner

Deputy Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Deputy Editor. 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.