Homeless photographer's haunting images spotlight London's 'invisible' population

by Adela Suliman | Thomson Reuters
Thursday, 3 October 2019 18:48 GMT

Homeless artist Andy Palfreyman poses at the opening of his photography exhibition at the Swiss Church in London, UK on 3 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Adela Suliman

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'Homeless people are homeless - they're not hopeless', said the artist

By Adela Suliman

LONDON, Oct 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A crumpled cigarette packet, wet footsteps on an empty street, a slender syringe pushed against a wall - lonely images that exemplify the haunting exhibition of photographs taken by a homeless Londoner, which opened on Thursday.

The gritty tableau are the work of Andy Palfreyman, a 54-year-old homeless man known as the 'dapper snapper' who captures the artistic shots on his mobile phone.

The largely black and white photos conjure the invisibility of the homeless, Palfreyman said, as well as the way in which homeless people around the world are often looked down upon, both physically and metaphorically.

"I want people to understand better that homeless people are homeless - they're not hopeless," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the exhibition opening.

"We shouldn't tar homeless people all with the same brush...Just give them a chance."

A black and white photo of a crumpled cigarette box on the street floor in London, UK, taken by homeless photographer Andy Palfreyman. Photo Credit: Andy Palfreyman

The 15 prints, displayed at central London's Swiss Church, are exhibited on specially designed low-lying plinths carefully placed throughout the expansive hall to make visitors stoop to observe them.

Similarly, Palfreyman said, the homeless often scan the ground from this vantage point for objects - or in his case, to make art.

"People don't look at the ground," he said. But "most homeless people tend to look down - for money, cigarettes, something of use. And it gave me the idea."

Palfreyman, who has been homeless for 30 years, left home in Cheshire, northern England, as a teenager. Sleeping rough in doorways and parks, he comes to the church for shelter, getting his first camera there and finding support for his art.

He now boasts a set of keys to the 164-year-old building and works part-time as a paid church warden. But still he remains homeless, sofa surfing day-to-day.

Exhibition curator Daniella Rossi reflected that "at a time when the art world is dominated by artists who come from privileged backgrounds, it's great to showcase Andy's poignant, reflective work."

"His photographs show hardship with a cutting sense of humour."

Rossi said the photographs would go on sale and that this was "the beginning of something" for the artist, who has been invited to submit his work for an international award.

Homeless artist Andy Palfreyman looks down at his photographic work at the opening of his exhibition at the Swiss Church in London, UK on 3 October 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Adela Suliman


Britain this week published data showing that 726 homeless people had died in England and Wales in 2018 - the equivalent of two each day and the highest since data collection began in 2013.

Most were men, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), while two in five were drug related.

Homelessness has been increasing in England for nearly a decade amid rising rents, a freeze on welfare benefits and a social housing shortage.

"Every single death on our streets is one too many, and these statistics are a sombre reminder that there is still much more to do to tackle homelessness and end rough sleeping for good," a government spokeswoman said in a statement.

Britain said it was investing 1.2 billion pounds ($1.5 billion) against homelessness and that 2018's Homelessness Reduction Act had prevented thousands of households from becoming homeless last year.

Housing charities say it's not enough.

Almost three million people in England are one pay cheque away from losing their homes because they cannot pay rent, housing charity Shelter reported last month.

It said the situation was particularly bleak for working families with children and called for more affordable social housing.

"You can't solve homelessness without homes, so we are calling on all parties to commit to building the social homes we need," said Polly Neate, Shelter's chief executive.

Palfreyman, who hopes his next project will be a fashion show, will continue exploring the human reality of homelessness, and its invisibility.

"The public don't see us - or don't want to see us," he said.

($1 = 0.8079 pounds)

(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Chris Michaud. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org for more stories.)

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