Excerpt: Leah Denbok's 'Nowhere to Call Home'

The 18-year-old photographer hopes her portraits — and the stories behind them — will help change the public's perception of homelessness
By TVO Current Affairs - Published on August 8, 2018
a man holding a dog
Photographer Leah Denbok takes portraits of those experiencing homelessness in Toronto.

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For the past two and a half years, I have been on a mission to change people’s perceptions of those experiencing homelessness. So often they are viewed as subhuman creatures, a lower order of being. Through my photographs and stories, I am trying to humanize them, to help people see that, apart from their unfortunate circumstances, they are no different from you and I.      

In India, where my mother was born, lower-caste Hindus were once called untouchables. To touch such people, or even, as was the case in South India, to look at them, was to “pollute” oneself. People experiencing homelessness today, I would argue, are the untouchables of Western society. One must not touch them — lest one become dirty or infected with germs — or even make eye contact with them — lest one feel obligated to give them money.    

I think this is a shame. People experiencing homelessness are some of the most pleasant people I have met. Devoid of possessions, spurned by society, and beaten down by life, they are, more often than not, humble and grateful for any act of kindness shown them. In a dog-eat-dog society such as ours, which values traits such as self-assertion and power above all else, these virtues — humility and gratitude — are very attractive.

I confess that when I first began photographing people experiencing homelessness, I did so largely for artistic reasons. Their faces were interesting. They told a story. But over the past couple of years, my empathy for these people has grown.  As I’ve listened to their stories — Chris, who had a breakdown after his son was hit by a car and whose girlfriend, unable to cope, took her own life; Lucy, who once had big dreams but is now barely surviving on the streets of Toronto, because of her all-consuming addiction to opioids — I have begun to understand and share their feelings.

My dad and I treat the people we meet with the utmost respect. We always introduce ourselves and shake their hands — even though they are, sometimes, grimy. My dad always makes a point, if the individual is sitting on the sidewalk — which is usually the case — of crouching down so that he is at their eye level. He doesn’t want them to feel as if they are being looked down upon in any way. And we always smile and treat them in a friendly manner. You would be surprised how much these small gestures are appreciated.  

* * *

a head shot of a man

BRIAN

When my dad asked Brian where he hails from, he practically shouted, “Cape Breton!” The love he has for his birthplace was obvious to see. In reply to my dad’s comment that the concrete jungle of Toronto was a big change from the rocky shores of Cape Breton, Brian effused, “Oh, my gosh! It’s beautiful out there. I miss it, you know?” Brian told us that he has lived in Toronto for 30 years. When asked if he had been back to Cape Breton during that time, he said, “Long time ago, because no fish and no mining, no steelworkers. Do you know what I mean?”

Adding to Brian’s difficulty is the fact that he has two children in Cape Breton, a daughter, 37, and a son, 34. “Do you miss your kids?” my dad asked. “Oh, yeah!” he replied. Asked if he has grandchildren, Brian replied, “One … that I know. One that I know … [from] my daughter.  Maybe from my son … I don’t know. With my son, it’s, ‘Avoid him.' You know what I mean? My daughter, I can phone. You know what I mean?”

“So you don’t talk to your son at all?” my dad asked.

“No,” he replied sadly.

When the photo shoot was finished and my dad took a $10 bill out of his pocket to pay Brian for modelling for me, Brian said, “Thank you. I appreciate this. Thank you kindly.”

Excerpted with permission from Leah Denbok.

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