COVERING SENSITIVE Populations: Working with People Who Are Homeless

In the 1980s, when poverty hit record levels, photojournalist Andrew Holbrooke decided to start a photo series that painted the reality of homelessness in New York City.  This project went on to win Holbrooke a World Press Photo award and Pictures of the Year awards.

We spoke with him about his approach to working with people who are homeless and the ethical dilemmas he faced.

Know the story you want to tell

“Homelessness was growing in the 80s. It seemed to me that no one was paying much attention to what was going on or addressing the issue and I found myself troubled by that. I wanted to, hopefully, bring some more awareness to the magnitude of the problem and how these people were living.”

Analyze the situation

“Most homeless people are very approachable.  At times they could be suspicious.  Sometimes they were hostile, but not usually.  The majority of them tended to have alcohol or drug problems and many have mental problems. It doesn’t take a long time to recognize what you have to do to reach out to them and learn which people you will be able to photograph. You just have to recognize the differences. They’re dealing with a variety of problems and you have to respect their space.”

Make a connection

“You have to gain their trust. You have to make a connection with them. You have to make them feel that you’re not going to hurt them. You don’t want to just grab a picture and run away. Work with them. Be respectful.”

Time matters

“I walked the streets of the city, week after week, over a period of six months. There were certain areas that I knew I’d find a lot of homeless and I’d go back to those areas many times. I’d find the same people on the streets and spend time with them.”

Never pay for a photograph

“Sometimes some of them wanted to be paid, but I don’t believe in paying for a photograph. I don’t want to contribute to their addictions by giving them money that they are going use to buy drugs or alcohol and I don’t want to have a subject letting me take their photo because he or she is getting paid for it. That will change the reality of the picture. There’s no truth in that.

There were times when I really felt that they were hungry or cold and I had already photographed them, that I would buy them soup or a cup of coffee.”

How to go beyond stereotypes

“Pictures of them sleeping can show interesting juxtapositions, but those pictures can also seem stereotypical. I’m not dismissing those kinds of photographs; I took many and they were interesting. Spend time and try to document as much of their experience as possible. Try to make a connection with them and understand who they are. No matter what you are able to get or even not get on camera, you will learn and grow and it will be worthwhile.”

This story is part two of our Covering Sensitive Populations series, where we help dissect the intricacies of working with subjects that may be made vulnerable to media attention. If you have a suggestion for a population you’d like to see discussed in this series, comment or tweet at us.


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