The man who looks homeless people in the eye
Back in 2008, the Manchester-based British artist Lee Jeffries was an accountant and a self-taught amateur photographer. Close to the professional football circle, he had started to photograph sporting events, combining two of his main passions.
While in London to run a marathon the following day, tough, a chance meeting with a young homeless girl changed the course of his professional life.
He recalls that walking near Leicester Square he trained his 5D camera with a 70-200 lens taking from a distance a picture of this girl, huddled in her sleeping bag.
She eventually spotted him and his initial instinct was to slip away, but instead he decided to strike up a conversation with her.
"She kicked up a right fuss! She started shouting, drawing the attention of passers-by and I was incredibly embarrassed. I realized I was faced with a decision: walk away or go and apologise to her " he told in an interview sometimes later "I chose the latter and the story of this eighteen years old girl changed my approach to street photography forever".
"She was addicted to drugs " kept explaining Jeffries "Her parents had died leaving her without a home, and she was now living on the streets of London".
In other words, whatever made him stay and talk with the girl twisted his perception about homelessness in the deepest way, sharpening the focus on the subject of his art - homeless people - from then on.
The new models of his black-and-white photos are tramps that he has met in Europe and in the United States, but he didn’t want to exploit these people, as well as other photographers who see the homeless as an easy target do: "Situations arose, and I made an effort to learn to get to know each of the subjects before asking their permission to do their portrait".
As a matter of fact, rovers rarely find themselves in the limelight, but Jeffries photos show incredible details and are filled with pathos: "I need to see some kind of emotion in my subjects" he explains "so I specifically look at people’s eyes and when I see it, I recognize it and feel it, I snap".
The photos are then enhanced with software and he process, predominantly through dodge and burn, to develop the mood of the eyes in an almost religious way.
He only ever has a few seconds to take the picture, because they sometimes change their mind about posing for the camera: his rules are to keep the contact as informal as possible, to rarely take notes and to take pictures while they are venting, so to capture their real feelings.
"I’m stepping into their world" he says "Everyone else walks by like the homeless are invisible. I’m stepping through the fear, in the hope that people will realize these people are just like me and you".
His passion has now become a life mission. He uses his images to draw attention to and raise funds for the homeless and he often committs himself at a more personal level, like when he bought food for a man who had lost his fingers and toes to frostbite or took a woman with a staph infection to the hospital when she was sick.
What Jeffries has given to these homeless people in terms of money could be quantified in some thousands of dollars, but what he has given them in terms of dignity is immeasurable.
"I can’t change these people’s lives" he explains "I can’t wave a magic wand and solve their problems, but that doesn’t mean I can’t take a photograph of them and try to raise awareness and bring attention to their plight ".