Homeless photograph their world for My London Calendar

Bizarre Culture was lucky enough to speak to Cafe Art director Paul Ryan about the project he set up with Michael Wong to connect homeless artists with the wider community. The art is sold to and hung in cafes, with all proceeds going to the artists. They have recently selected photos for their 2016 calendar. All shots are provided by homeless people involved with the project’s photography competition, supported by the Royal Photographic Society.

One hundred disposable cameras were distributed at St Paul’s Cathedral, and participants were given three days to shoot on the theme ‘My London’. Photos were selected by a panel of judges including representatives from Amateur Photographer magazine, Fujifilm, Homeless Link and London Photo Festival.

The calendar will be sold in arts markets to raise money for art materials for participants and arts groups. Back it on Kickstarter here

We’ve picked our five favourite images from the 2016 My London Calendar. See them below, along with the stories behind the shots.

Bizarre Culture’s Five Favourite Images from the Calendar

January – Tyre Break by Desmond Henry (Hackney)

Desmond was born in Northamptonshire and grew up in the West Indies. He has been attending the Pritchard’s Road Day Centre for over 20 years. ‘They tell you about what is going on in the world. We have meetings, we have outings. Because we are mentally unwell, they support us to develop our skills and build our confidence.’ Desmond likes to play music as a DJ from R&B to all sorts of music from the 60s. The Centre also provides housing for attendees who have lost their homes.

Desmon found this woman taking a coffee break in front of a mural. ‘I was very lucky. It was as if God sent her.”


February – Bags for Life by David Tovey (The Strand)

David opened his own restaurant in London after six years in the Army’s catering corps, but illness caused him to lose his business and become homeless. He is housed and is a practising artist, and volunteers for Clothing the Homeless and Cafe Art. Read his incredible story here. He had two photos included in last year’s calendar. “I’ve gained a lot from this project. A year ago I almost didn’t make the camera handout: this year I gave a presentation to the people picking up cameras!”

David shot Tony because of the contrast between him and the buildings across the road. Tony told him that after becoming homeless, listening to music was the only thing he missed.

Bizarre Culture

April – London Calling, by XO (Lincoln’s Inn)

XO goes to the Crisis Skylight building in Whitechapel. ‘I’ve had a passion for and interest in photography since my teenage years, but I consider myself a novice and would like to go on a course to learn the ropes.’

‘As I was looking through the camera lens, wondering which angle to take the photo from, this guy walked past with his umbrella (it was raining lightly), and I seized the opportunity to snap it. Although very rarely used these days, I love the fact phone boxes are still around; they’re synonymous with our capital.’

Bizarre Culture

May – Past and Future by Ioanna Zagkana (City of London)

Born in Avia, Greece, she has been living in London for almost five years, working as a dancer until an accident ended her career. When money ran out, she lived in a squat in Whitechapel before being made aware of Crisis. She goes to many art groups, including Crisis Skylight and Women at the Well, and is currently staying with a friend.

Ioanna feels that the two buildings represent the future and the past of London. The Gherkin was built in 2003, and its elderly neighbour, St Andrew’s Undershaft (c.1532), survived not only the Blitz, but the Great Fire of London.

Bizarre Culture

November – The Artist by Michael Crosswaite (Whitechapel)

Michael lives near Broadway Market, Hackney. He was sleeping rough for several years before getting into a hostel and then a flat. He goes to Providence Row and Crisis and has paintings in Café Art’s Art in Cafés programme.

‘I didn’t over-think the photo and perhaps that’s why it worked. The painting is so good it makes the picture.’ Unsurprisingly, Aaron Little, the artist in the photo, also believes in the power of art. ‘I found that doing art has been so beneficial to me for my well being and in all sorts of different ways.’


Andrei Sandu, Bizarre Culture: What was the motivation behind starting the Cafe Art project? 

Paul Ryan, Cafe Art: I set up Cafe Art with Michael Wong as we had a shared vision to empower homeless people, based on his experiences volunteering with an art group for homeless people, and my experiences running a similar project, Hope in Shadows, in Vancouver, Canada for seven years.

We saw a need for artists to show their work and express themselves through it. During the year, Cafe Art hangs art in cafes, connecting the artists to buyers. The annual My London calendar empowers participants by connecting them to the wider community, both through the contest and later through selling the calendar in markets. Money raised goes towards buying art materials and cameras for the participants.


BC: Why did you chose to target the project towards the homeless, as opposed to other underprivileged groups in society? Would you consider expanding towards people affected by gang violence, for example? Self-expression is often discouraged in such environments and the success of a project like yours could really change that, as well as offering a unique insight into that culture.

Paul: We are working with the homeless because we both had experience which proved that projects like this one could make a difference. Working with gangs is a great idea, though. I don’t have connections in that area, but I know the Evening Standard is running a big project to help people affected by gang violence.


BC: Alternatively, would you ever consider expanding the scheme to other cities?

PR: We are still a very small project, but would be happy to get involved. We have been approached by a group of people in Athens who are hoping to do something similar.


BC: The phenomenal success of concepts like Humans of New York has shown the recent explosion of public interest into unique insights into the lives of others. What do you think of HONY, and do you feel that your project is more organic, as it is shot by the people themselves? 

PR: I love HONY, but we are different for that very reason. Portraits taken by people who are from their own community will achieve results inaccessible to strangers. The Vancouver project was set up to combat journalists and professional photographers taking photos of the homeless and other marginalised people on the streets of Downtown Eastside Vancouver without permission. One of the rules of our photo contest is that the consent of the subject is mandatory.


BC: Any photo is often an insight into the thoughts and experiences of the photographer. Interestingly, only a few participants chose to photograph aspects of homelessness, with most choosing to capture other sides of London. Did you expect this?

PR: The Vancouver project I previously managed was run by a legal advocacy non-profit fighting for better housing, so we sometimes asked participants to photograph their friends, family and living conditions. Over the years, we realised that people prefer to take photos of things they like, and we kept the theme open in London for this reason. Participants don’t want to be stereotyped as being homeless. By photographing the London that we all know, it connects them to everyone in the city. As a result, the London project produced more photos of buildings, and less of people, compared to Vancouver. One thing that will always be popular, regardless of location, are photos of dogs!


BC: How did participants feel about getting involved through the medium of photography then? Was there enthusiasm or reluctance?

PR: There were a mixture of responses. We are now in our third year, so it’s getting easier to explain the project and attract people to pick up a camera as they quickly understand what we are doing. Not everyone returns the camera though, usually around 85%. This might be because they are not interested, or because something has come up. Being homeless can be hectic and we understand this.


BC: What kind of things were covered in the photography training sessions given to participants.

PR: Basic training was carried out in art groups run by homelessness organisations and then by volunteers at our Whitechapel base a week before the camera handout session. Anyone interested could attend this session, encouraging connection between the homeless participants and other photography enthusiasts. We feel that people should be given the opportunity to learn as much as possible before the contest.

The training includes an introduction to the film single-use camera, and how to take a clear shot. The cameras are limited in what they can do, but this is a good challenge for many reasons. It makes people plan their photos, since they only have 36 shots, and they can’t zoom in, delete or take shots in low light unless they use the basic flash.


BC: Do you hope that some of your participants will pursue photography further? 

PR: We are really lucky to have the support of The Royal Photographic Society for the photography training. In the next few months we are planning to set up a group for participants to take their photography further to learn about digital aspect of the trade. People come from all types of backgrounds – some of the winners had never picked up a camera before, while others have had a lot of experience.


BC: Finally, how significant has the role of crowdfunding been to the project, and how do you think you would have organised your aims if this had not been an option; if services like Kickstarter did not exist? 

PR: This is our second Kickstarter campaign, and we learned a lot from the last one, two years ago. Don’t expect it to go viral, start early, and tell everyone you know to buy a calendar on the first day. Last year, we tried to get people to buy the calendar without crowdfunding and the results were terrible.

However, the project would still work without it. Hope In Shadows Vancouver never had it, and the calendars were sold on the street by vendors. Most of the Cafe Art calendars will also be sold in arts markets from mid-October until Christmas. Kickstarter does solve our cashflow problems though, by generating funds to cover printing costs before the calendars have been printed.


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