On the first of July, London-based social enterprise Café Art handed out 105 disposable cameras to homeless people in the British capital to take photos of their city. Five days later, they collected the cameras and printed the photos, submitting them to a competition better known as MyLondon. Over the next month, a panel of judges – which included participants from the Royal Photographic Society, Amateur Photographer magazine, Fujifilm, Christie’s, the London Photo Festival, photographer Ken Lennox and an ex-homeless artist – reviewed the photos. The judges selected 20 photos to be included in an exhibition, and the public then voted on the top 13 photos to be included in a calendar for 2017.
“It’s all about empowering people through photography so they can express themselves and tell their story, but also feel that they’re gaining something by participating. Not only do they gain confidence in learning photography skills, but they also get to meet people when they go out and take photos of their city,” explains journalist-turned-social-entrepreneur Paul Ryan, founder of MyLondon. He explains that, beyond just developing their photography skills, though, participants are instructed in basic sales’ skills and are allowed to sell copies of the calendars – keeping 50% of the profits for each sale that they make.
MyLondon has its roots in a similar project that Ryan worked on in Vancouver. While working with homeless communities there, Ryan worked with a group that handed out black-and-white cameras to homeless people and then compiling the photos into calendars. Over the course of seven years, he grew the initiative into a charity called Hope in Shadows, which went from selling 3,000 calendars a year to 18,000.
When Ryan moved back to the UK in 2012, he was certain that he could successfully replicate the model. There, he met future partner Michael Wong, who had founded an organization called Café Art, which connects homeless people to their communities through art. Café Art helped homeless people exhibit their artwork – mainly paintings – in café’s across London. If a painting is bought, the money goes to the artist.
Together, the duo established the photography competition – MyLondon – and partnered up with Fujifilm, who provided the disposable cameras. They also added a photography exhibition and public voting to the process. Once the selection of photos has been made, the team works closely with the photographers themselves, co-writing their stories as they would like them to appear in the calendar.
One of the group’s objectives in creating a space for homeless people to make their voices heard is to show the many different stories behind homelessness. “When we address the issue of homelessness, we want the public to look at the pictures and read the stories and understand that there are different kinds of stories. Many people are escaping situations of crisis that made them homeless, and it shows people how easy it is to become homeless,” he says. He explains that, in the UK, sleeping rough can refer to people who are in the process of being rehabilitated and people who are still on the streets as well as couch-surfers.
“As well as empowering people, we’re trying to educate the public about homelessness in a subtle way. The calendar doesn’t focus on the negative – it focuses on the positive. We don’t want people to look at it and say this is depressing, we want to show the positive side of things,” he says.
In fact, Ryan is clear that the photos are far from depressing, and indeed, a scan of the photos selected for this year’s calendar show that they are not characteristically depressive. Nor, he explains, are the photos necessarily exceptional. In fact, Ryan is clear that the same range of photography skills would likely be found in any group of 100 people. So what makes the photos different? That they provide a different perspective on urban life, often capturing moments and spaces that would be inaccessible to a member of the general public. “We’re not trying to say that these people are exceptionally talented – they’re just like any other group, there are people who are talented and people who are not talented,” he says.
And since Café Art partners up with groups and charities that already work with homeless people, many of the photographers are in the process of being rehabilitated. “Maybe 25% [of the people we work with] are still sleeping rough, but these charities try to get people off the streets and into hostels or even into social housing. But even if they get to the social housing stage, they still might not have a job or they might be depressed, so they need contact with people,” he explains.
But the initiative is hardly limited to London or Vancouver. In fact, Ryan has built partnered up with organizations who have replicated the project in seven different cities around the world, including Budapest, Sydney, New Orleans, Toronto and Rio de Janeiro, and the team is currently working on partnerships in Rome and Madrid. Last year, Ryan flew to Sao Paolo, where he managed MySaoPaolo.
Earlier this month, MyLondon launched a campaign on Kickstarter to help fund the printing of the 2017 calendar.