“there are no simple answers, definitions or words that can encapsulate the experiences of people who are homeless.”


Out in the Cold  is a documentary photo project designed to bring awareness to chronic cases of homelessness in New York City. It focuses on people who live on the fringes of society, neglected by the city and their community, and whose stories habitually go untold. The project started as a class assignment under the leadership of Associate Professor Nina Berman in the fall of 2013.

The project that lives at www.outinthecoldnyc.com and “is innovative because it is a collaborative effort by a group of diverse photographers from different parts of the world, who are combining images and words to create something new,” says the team. It publishes these stories on a social media platform that encourages sharing and advances the conversation. A selection of images from the Out in the Cold will be exhibited at Gallery 300 and open to the public at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism starting on Friday May 15th when the official opening will take place.

The photographers on the team are Yan Cong, Ye Ming, Kali Kotoski, Anand Katakam and Rahima Gambo.

We spoke to the team of students behind Out in the Cold about their experience ands the evolution of a project.

CV: How and why did you choose to focus on this subject?

Out in the Cold: The project started as an assignment for Nina Berman’s photo class in October when the winter was fast approaching. We decided on the project because we believe that homelessness is a crisis that is under-reported by the media. With Bill de Blasio being the newly elected mayor of New York City, it was meant to highlight some of his campaign promises to remedy income inequality. It was designed to be a social justice collaborative project that used social media to bring images of homelessness that sensitize the general public to the complexities and individualities of the many unsheltered people we see on the street everyday.

CV: How did Out in the Cold evolve to what it is now?

OITC: It started as a time limited class project and grew very organically into an ongoing project that we are passionate about. A selection of the images is now exhibited at Gallery 300 at Columbia Journalism School.

CV: What was your approach  to shooting this subject?

OITC: Each of the photographers involved in the project have very different styles of shooting. You can see that in the images. However what we found is that, taking a photographs of homeless subjects is more than just pressing the shutter button. First you have to make an emotional connection with a person. They have to trust you. This can take hours, days or months to achieve.

CV: Did the experience of shooting homelessness change your views on the subject?

OITC: Homelessness is generally a topic that seems to be trapped in very cliched, two-dimensional narratives. The homeless person usually lacks agency, is portrayed as a statistical number, or a charity case. What we found is that there are no simple answers, definitions or words that can encapsulate the experiences of people who are homeless. That’s the great thing about photography, we don’t have to explain. you can simple gaze at the image, read the narrative, interpret the image as you will.

CV: What did you learn from collaborating on this project?

OITC: As a collective group of photographers, we’ve learnt to create content that compliments each other. Also the variety of styles bring out different stories in our work.

CV: What were the biggest challenges?

OITC: One big challenge was to keep a long-term relationship with a subject, because they are always moving and don’t have cell phones. Another challenge was safety. For some hot spots like the 125th Street and Lexington Avenue in East Harlem, there’s a lot of suspicions, violence and drugs. We wanted to get close to the subjects but not get in the way of how things were there to keep us out of trouble.

CV: What are some lessons learned from this project?

OITC: Journalists have to approach all kinds of people in their careers, but covering homelessness needs us to be more tender and sensitive. We learned to put ourselves on the same level of our characters, tried to understand their stories ourselves before telling them to a wider audience.

For more on learning to shoot photos of homelessness, read our post on covering sensitive subjects.

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