There are a number of subjects that have been rather marred by the intentions of well-meaning photographers, who in attempting to draw more attention to these topics have had the perverse effect of making them less noticeable. Homelessness is such a subject, one which has been crudely and retro-gradely photographed countless times, often it seems almost as a photographic rite of passage. By contrast relatively few people have photographed it in a way that really provides new information, makes viewers feel differently about it, or even makes them feel anything about it at all.
Recently I came across an article containing photographs of London’s homeless which stopped me in my tracks. These photographs were taken by Moyra Peralta around the east end and centre of the city, from the late seventies to the late nineties and published in a small book, Nearly Invisible. Working as a volunteer ‘on the soup runs, in night shelters, in hostels’ Peralta often photographed the people and places she got to know, and the result is a journey through a side of London which although usually in plain sight, is as the book’s title suggests, practically invisible to most Londoners as they go about their lives.
Perhaps because Peralta was approaching her subjects not primarily as a photographer, and maybe without the usual photographer’s agenda, these pictures have an intimacy and understanding that one doesn’t often see. Collectively they create a picture of the lives of rough sleepers and an insight into their personalities that is rather rare. You get a sense of the dangers, the difficulty, the boredom of life on the street, but also of the community and relationships, the shared jokes and friendships which must have been so vital to surviving in such an indifferent environment.
Her repeated contact with the same people also allow their individual personalities to become evident in a way which is uncommon in much similar photography, where the photographer’s contact with his or her subjects is often fleeting and erratic. A set of photos which are a nice example of these different personalities actually doesn’t show any people, instead it’s a series of still life pictures where Peralta asked the people she knew to let her photograph the meagre possessions they carried in their pockets, something of the owner’s lives and personalities shining through in these little collections. There are the expected scatterings of loose change, cigarettes, but then there are the unexpected and revealing; a photograph of Jack Nicholson, a plane ticket stub, a copy of the The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
Nearly Invisible is a pertinent body of work right now, as homelessness seems more evident than ever on the streets of London, a consequence of economic troubles and perhaps a growing acceptance of the idea that those in need can be split into the deserving, and the undeserving. Peralta’s work is also a reminder that while homelessness is easily seen as being a product of the politics of the right, is often just as problematically treated by the left. In one particularly sad part of the book the informal settlement of homeless in The Bullring, the Waterloo roundabout, is evicted to make way for an IMAX cinema, a potent symbol of a new era, a new millennium and New Labour.
As has often been made clear on this blog I’m something of a cynic, particularly with regards to well-worn subject matter, and photographers who profess implicitly or explicitly to wanting to change the world. Peralta’s work maybe hasn’t changed the world in a larger sense, but it has changed my mind about the ability of photography and photographers to sidestep reductive conventions and show things that are familiar almost to the point of invisibility in ways that can still force a viewer to sit up and take notice. Equally looking at this work has forced me to reconsider my own feelings, and to recognise that despite my intentions to treat all people equally my attitudes have become subtly tainted by the flood of pernicious myths about the homeless.
You can buy a copy of Nearly Invisible for the bargain price of five pounds plus postage by e-mailing Moyra directly at firstname.lastname@example.org