Lifelines of the homeless in 12 images Portraits of the stranded in our society. An Olaf Willoughby interview with Chris Candid

To start can you give me an overview of your project, its title & what is its main theme?

For some time I have been photographing around the train-station in Berlin. It is there that you will find the stranded of the society, the homeless. What was at first slightly scary for me turned out to be a treasure trove of portraits of lives lived. I immediately realized how lifelines draw character into our faces.

Ironically, the homeless gather where Helmut Newton has a permanent photo exhibit. This is close to the Railway Mission where they will find food and clothing. I deliberately do not shoot secretly or with a telephoto lens. I take the opposite approach. To understand these less fortunate people I need to make contact and talk with them, to hear their stories.

The interesting thing is that they like to talk about their life’s journey. Listening gives them the emotional satisfaction of being heard. Photography, particularly portraiture, helps the homeless to feel part of our society. Even if the process of talking and shooting takes just a few minutes, at least it means that someone is paying attention.

And how does that theme develop as a story throughout the project?

It started out as a secret project – as candid shots. But one day I started talking with one of the homeless and it became clear that there was so much more to learn and ‘see’. Suddenly I was interested in their stories. I shoot while the conversation progresses and sometimes the subject starts posing. I continue shooting the series as sometimes these more posed images can be softer as the person relaxes. It is exhausting and building a portfolio of images is time consuming.

Whether they smile or have a straightforward expression, each image is for me, a short story. Look at the homeless couple kissing, that’s the best example. I spoke with a group of homeless people, noticed these two kissing and took the picture immediately. I always show the subject the images on the camera so they can choose which they do/do not want printed or published. It is important to show them the respect they deserve.

With many other genres of photography I could set out knowing that I’d return with a card full of images. But not when the subjects are the homeless. They can simply say, ‘No. Not today’. And it will be different the next day. It is a never ending story. Yes, I often give money, I see this as a project based on reciprocity!

Is the project purely for yourself or do you have a commercial or cause related end in mind?

I do it for fun, not in order to make money. Overall my plan is to sell the images so the proceeds go entirely to the railway mission. That’s my next goal.

What photographic choices have you made; colour palette, composition, use of flash….etc.

Besides my Leica Q I sometimes use a flash. The 28mm lens can really capture the lifelines on the face beautifully. The Leica Q is also excellent for my style of portrait work. I take all my homeless pictures in black and white. It’s the best form to tell this particular story because it deals sympathetically with the lifelines in their faces.

Whats your vision for the project and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?

My vision for this project is that people continue to listen. I will know in practical terms if I have been successful when I can help them through the proceeds of photo sales. My dream is for a gallery exhibition.

Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?

Many photographers have influenced me – from Martin Parr and Bruce Gilden to Jeff Mermelstein – from Vivian Meier to Cartier-Bresson. But most of my ideas are from the Internet – especially from Facebook and The Leica Meet page. There you can discover many outstanding photographers who are not as famous as those mentioned above. I also sample books and visit galleries. And that is sufficient inspiration. I like to find my own style. That’s the greatest problem.

Not all projects are smooth sailing. Have you had any setbacks and what were your learnings?

Yes of course there are occasional difficulties. Not everyone is happy when you take their photo. Therefore my motto is that the shortest way between people is……. a smile! A smile will almost always help to open doors. And when not, it is better to be patient.

Initially I tried to persuade people to allow me to take their portrait but I no longer do this. There must be a good balance between the photographer and the subject. I have been abused and interviewed people who an elderly couple who I later learned were pickpockets. My advice in these situations is to stay calm and not allow yourself to be provoked. Occasionally as with any style of street shooting we have to accept that some people just don’t want to be photographed.

What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?

I have used the Leica Q since its release. It is for me the perfect tool for street photography! Previously I always used Nikon equipment. But it was my dream to own a Leica. I had a Nikon D800 and some lenses. I sold my equipment in 2015 – und bought the Leica Q – the best decision of my life. I started my project with a Ricoh GR – this camera open my eyes for the street photography. I have the Q now. With the 28mm lens my vision has also changed, and with it my whole approach to photography.

Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?

I use the camera on full automatic settings almost exclusively. For my portraits I like to use maximum aperture. With flash photography I handle everything manually. For the post processing I use Lightroom with the presets of VSCO. I try to keep this stage quite simple.

 

About Chris Candid

My name is Christian Schirrmacher – a.k.a. ‘Chris Candid’. I’m 50 years old, married and I have 3 children. I live in Berlin. I’m a police-officer – it helps me to see things from a different perspective. I discovered The Leica Meet through Facebook and have been a member there since buying the Leica Q. I would like to thank Olaf for this interview and say a huge ‘Thanks’ to all the photographers on The Leica Meet and elsewhere who have inspired me!

To connect with Chris, please visit his official website and follow him on Facebook, Flickr, 500px and Instagram.

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Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 9,600 members. In Summer 2016, Olaf will be co-teaching ‘Visual Conversations’, a creative photography workshop with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College in Rockport plus the Leica Studio in London.

If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: olaffwilloughby@gmail.com or www.olafwilloughby.com    

 

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3 comments

  • I’ve been thinking of doing the same type of personal project for awhile as I’ve watched the homeless population grow around my neighborhood and office (in San Francisco, CA). Fear of assault, but more of rejection has prevented me from actually doing it though. Thanks for this post as it may help me overcome my fear.

  • I am not a fan of (yet more) photos of homeless people. It always strikes me as exploitative. There is a certain amount of irony in using very expensive photographic equipment to take pictures of people with nothing. Would the photographer talk to these people if he weren’t trying to get their photos? If we collectively really wanted to help these people, there are far better ways than taking their pictures and sticking them up on the internet.

    Others, will no doubt feel differently.

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