At first, it might be hard to work out what’s going on. A cockeyed version of street photography? An exercise in the bad selfie? An ego trip? But gradually, the repetition of the person in the pictures forces you to consider the person who isn’t. “It just came to me,” says the photographer Nigel Shafran, about the idea of his new book, The People on the Street. “I find it difficult to see people who are in that position and not see them. I mean, they’re us, aren’t they? People like us.” But for lots of people – the ones who walk past and pretend not to see them – the homeless and people begging on the street are invisible, and that’s one of the points the book makes: this is what we look like as we walk by: the vantage point is low, the images are blurred, bits of the street are visible in the background, so, too, are perplexed pedestrians, caught in the picture, wondering what’s going on.
Shafran, who lives in London, where the number of rough sleepers has doubled since 2010, began his project in 2016 and continued intermittently through the next year. He is a photographer himself, so obviously there was some awareness of location and framing, but for the most part he kept the exchange as simple as possible: going up to a person, asking if they would take his picture, and usually they said yes. “Very few people said no,” he says. “People like to help, don’t they?” He gave them his camera, not a mobile phone, and some people were surprised he trusted them with it. In a few cases they directed him in the shot – “One man told me to ‘go to the top of that tree…’” Afterwards he always stopped and talked and learned more about how they’d got there.
The annual Crisis Homeless Monitor, which looks at figures for rough sleeping and homelessness in England, gives Local Housing Reforms, introduced in 2011, as one of the major factors in the rise, as they have made it more difficult for low-income families to find places in the private rented sector. Shafran says a lot of the stories he heard were about emotional problems, abusive relationships, family breakdowns, or the kind of situation that meant a person had suddenly left home and couldn’t go back, or had lost their job and was sleeping on a friend’s floor. “It’s about falling, isn’t it? It could happen to any of us,” he says, voicing the thought that motivates many [of us] who do decide to give money to people in the street, or help them through a charity, or in some other practical way.
Did he give his subjects money? “I did, sometimes,” he says, “more often I got them something to eat or drink — Coke, coffee, a sandwich, a burger. I bought one man a packet of cigarettes. I talked to a young girl on Oxford Street and she said often restaurants left food for them at the end of the day.”
It made him uncomfortable, he admits, not only because of the obvious difference between his life and theirs, but also because of what it says about his profession. In a way, it uses photography against itself: a comment on the selfie, the celebrity picture, fashion and beauty advertising and the stereotypical ways that photography aestheticises poverty. It was about his own vanity, too: the book uses at least one picture from every encounter “however awful” it is.
But cumulatively, the real purpose becomes clear. It is not about the person in the pictures, but about the person not being shown. “Sometimes, not showing somebody makes you think about them more,” Shafran says. “I hoped it might stay with you, might reverberate, so when you walk past a person in the street it might come back to you. It was my way of addressing the subject, I suppose.”
“The People on the Street”, £30 inc.UK p&p, is available from email@example.com.
All profits go charity.