An early use of flash photography, I learned from artist Anthony Luvera on World Homelessness Day in Birmingham, was by Jacob Riis who used flash photograph at the end of the 19th century to photograph homeless people flop houses and other previously unseen recesses of poverty. Riis was also one of the first to use photography to raise awareness and change minds about a social issue. Images of bleary-eyed, disorientated people, dehumanised as much by the sudden flash of light as by the effects of poverty, set the tone for a century of representations of people going through tough times as objects of pity and fascination.
Luvera was speaking at the launch of Construct, his participative photography project, which began with him spending time with people at homelessness support services, getting to know people, and then helping them to take their own ‘assisted self-portraits’. Here is a little of (roughly) what I said for my bit at the launch:
I’m struck by the way that Anthony challenges the traditional idea of the artist as lone genius, taking his subjects, and creating his art from them.
Charities leaders are often uncomfortably close to that traditional model of the artist: inspired by the people we work with, but ultimately creating our unique vision for our organisation, for our ‘beneficiaries’, ‘service users’ or in the most up-to-date jargon, ‘customers’. Around the time that Jacob Riis was both bringing a social problem into public consciousness, and dehumanising the people he wanted to help, charities and early public services were still very much working in the tradition of the Poor Laws, which sought to help, control and punish in equal measure. We like to believe we’ve escaped those roots, but the image of the camera flash momentarily engulfing the scene of someone’s suffering in its glare brought to mind the way that every ‘support journey’ in our modern community services, starts with the brutal glare of the Needs Assessment: a slice through everything that is going wrong in someone’s life, in which the goal, if you want any help, is to display every possible need, risk and problem.
The art we are launching today starts with a relationship, and it’s clear that how it’s made is as important as what is created. We heard from Mauvette earlier that her participation in the project was more than a snapshot, it was an ongoing relationship, and the fulfilment of her long-held dream of being a photographer, not just Anthony’s. The potential for social change was all the greater. The co-created portraits do not fetishise suffering, vulnerability, or heroic battles. People present themselves as they are: human.
Eschewing the easy snapshot of a ‘subject’, in place of a painstaking processing of getting to know each other: there is a lot that we in charities and support services could learn about how to start real conversations and see whole people.