Of the many things we love in art here at The Art Elephant, a fav is that we believe anyone can be creative, anyone can share their love for something through art, and anyone can be an inspiration to others and to themselves in whatever form they see fit.
A pretty solid example of such is Manchester-based photographer Lee Jeffries. An accountant by profession, Jeffries started photographing the homeless back in 2008 during his travels. He doesn’t just point and shoot either – he gets to know his subjects first. It’s quite an admirable trait that we would like to dive more into.
In fact, we tried reaching out to mister Jeffries about a month ago to get an exclusive interview. Should he grant us the privilege, we’ll feature him once more here on TAE. For now, let’s just marvel at the beautiful way he has captured life out on the streets in his ongoing and most notable series of photographs aptly titled “Homeless.”
Back in 2011, he became the Photographer of the Year by Digital Camera World, and for good reason. The photographer was genuinely shocked since he said he doesn’t usually win competitions, but his winning shot immediately grabbed the attention of photography fans and critics alike.
This photography side of Jeffries all started back in London. He was going to run a marathon, and on the day before the race he thought it would be a good idea to just go around the city and take pictures. As he went past Leicester Square, he saw a young homeless woman and decided to photograph her. She was huddled in a sleeping bag, near a bunch of Chinese food containers.
“She spotted me and started shouting, drawing the attention of passersby,” Jeffries told Times magazine. “I could have just walked away in an embarrassed state, or I could have gone over and apologized to her.” Sure enough, he apologized and spoke with the then-eighteen-year-old.
From the outside, it was indicative that she used drugs. On the inside, however, it was a much more complex and painful story than that. She told him her parents had died, thus leaving her homeless. This unplanned encounter and conversation touched Jeffries in so many ways, thus moving him to make his street photography become more personal than ever.
The self-taught photographer uses his vacation time and his own funds to travel the world and do the same type of approach wherever he goes. Having gone to places such as New York, Las Vegas, Rome, Paris, and of course London, what started out as an unintentional passion is now his life’s mission. Jeffries uses his art form to raise awareness.
“When I’m talking to these people, I can’t then leave that emotion, so when I get back to my computer so emotionally involved, sometimes I will start to cry when processing the image,” Jeffries told Times. He has used these photographs in competitions (winning or at least placing in a few), and created a blurb book Lost Angels from which the proceeds are donated to charities and fundraisers for the homeless and disabled.
As for his style of photography, many have noticed he has a signature method that is apparent in his photographs. Most are close-up shots of just the subject’s face and processed in black and white, and that is with good reason. In an interview with 500x, he explained this:
“It’s true… my images can be biased to front on views that closely frame the face. Processing in black and white reinforces the contrasts and shapes in the portrait. Infused with light and shadow, I make a conscious effort to place the emphasis on the relief of the face and the strength of the photograph lays in the emotional connection to the subject. I try to magnify the character… tell their story so that it is no longer possible for the viewer to remain indifferent. My photographs become an intimate and personal document which narrates a myriad of emotion.”
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Many would say that instead of profiting for himself (while there’s nothing wrong with that), Jeffries’s take on where the money goes is something to look up to. He has been confronting an issue that often goes under the radar because either we do not know how to approach it, or we are not aware enough what it does to the affected population in poverty.
Don’t expect, however, that he photographs every homeless person encounters. He selects them based on how they pull him into their gravity. “I don’t shoot every homeless person I see. I have to see something in their eyes. Unless you feel you can get some emotion from your subject, the image just won’t work. I’ve taken hundreds of shots of homeless people and, to be honest, lots don’t work,” he explained to the Independent.
Other than his moving experience with the 18-year-old runaway back in 2008, Jeffries explained the reason he still does what he does. “I don’t generally get involved in any of the politics. I make contact with these people, hopefully brighten up their day and give them a bit of money. I’ve got more of an appreciation for the life they have now.”
In an interview with Time and Huffington Post, Jeffries explained that what he does isn’t an instant cure. “I can’t change these people’s lives,” he explained. “I can’t wave a magic wand but it doesn’t mean I can’t take a photograph of them and try to raise awareness and bring attention to their plight.”
Thanks for reading!