I only reluctantly began photographing people experiencing homelessness. When I was fifteen, my mentor, the National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, told me that my strength lay in portraiture. At first, I began photographing the elderly in nursing homes. However, as I needed written consent from their children, this soon became impractical.
Then my dad showed me the work of the British photographer, Lee Jeffries. He is famous for his photographs of the houseless. “Why don’t you photograph them?” he asked me. Within a week, I was in Toronto doing exactly that. That was six years ago. Since then, I have photographed hundreds of people experiencing homelessness in several major cities worldwide. I have also had four books published with my photographs and stories of these people. Although admittedly, I began photographing these people for purely artistic reasons, I have since learned to love them – in the sense of desiring their good. Despite being poor in material possessions, the houseless are often rich in moral virtues, such as humility, gratitude and unpretentiousness. However, the moral virtue that they possess most strongly, I think, is fortitude, “courage in pain or adversity.
Melissa is a case in point. She ended up on the streets of Toronto last January when she, and the other tenants of the apartment building where they were living in Orangeville, were illegally evicted on Christmas day. Unable to find another place to rent because of COVID, Melissa parked herself, along with her dog Tinkerbell, on a heating grate at the corner of Queen St. and Victoria St., in Toronto.
Or consider Lynn. When we met her, she was sleeping on a heating grate in front of Toronto’s Old City Hall. Once, her ex-boyfriend knocked out her front teeth and set her on fire. Most recently, she’d been kicked in the face by a stranger. The last thing Lynn said to me was, “It was nice meeting you, Leah. You are like a sister or good friend I never had!”
Is it any wonder that I enjoy the company of the unhoused so much – even more than I enjoy the company of those who are housed? They are wonderful people. It’s too bad that most people just ignore them.
SUBMITTED BY: LEAH DEN BOK
Leah den Bok is a Fashion, Beauty and Portrait Photographer. Since 2015 , she has been traveling to cities throughout the world, such as Toronto, New York, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and Brisbane, photographing people experiencing homelessness and recording their stories for her project Humanizing The Homeless. Leah’s goals with this project are to humanize people experiencing homelessness and shine a spotlight on the problem of homelessness. Leah donates 100% of the profits she makes from her books and exhibits of her work to local homeless shelters.