There are over 100,000 homeless people in Australia. 25% of these are aboriginal/Torres strait islanders, a far higher rate than their natural occurrence. Over 30% are 19-34, also an over-representation. In short, homelessness is a problem and it is often outside of the control of those affected. People come from abusive situations and have nowhere to escape to, they feel they don't fit in, are isolated and in need of a lifeline. Photography and art provide a means to share stories, to engage with emotions, to accept oneself on the road to recovery.
In August 2015 I read about something amazing. While idly looking at Facebook on a Saturday morning, I happened across an inspiring article that woke me up. A friend had shared something - 100 disposable cameras had been handed out to homeless people and the results? Beautiful photography of unique perspectives, the front page leaping out at me of a man's dog smiling before the cutty sark, humour, depth and history all at once. A calendar - a simple idea, so that throughout 2016 an owner of the calendar can see unique perspectives from individual homeless participants, sharing their stories and experiences.
"Why can't I do this?" I said. Fast forward a couple of months and Sophie and I have formed MySydney and have just finished an emotional couple of days at The Wayside Chapel, an inspired location in which the richer and less fortunate of Wollomolloo come face to face. We have 50 cameras ready to go. The eyes of various people who have previously or are now experiencing homelessness eyes light up when we mention the project. It is our passion to connect people from all walks of life, recognising that everyone is essentially the same.
Cafe Art also supported us from early on. Their dream is to expand the hugely successful London approach to a united global approach. As such we have been recognised as one of 2 pilot cities for this approach to be formally launched for 2016 - i.e. the 2017 calendar.
Day 1. With an angry storm outside, we wait anxiously behind tables at Wayside's community dinner, we felt the weather would keep participants away. Or at least they'd have no interest in our photography competition - they'll just grab their food and then, understandably, rush to find shelter for the night, right? Wrong. So many came up brightly lit faces, and as our patient and enthusiastic team took them through the minutae of photography, all kinds of quirky personalities showed up. Rob, who runs the dinners, is a real character. Loud booming South African accent, he runs a raffle and the winner accidentally opens a box containing his underwear. The whole thing looks like a carry on movie for a second. Taking the piss out of each other. Down to earth and funny. Tables are set up outside and 20 cameras are handed out. Jemma, one of the 5 volunteers who jumped in to help caught this quote from a wonderful man named David:
"The beauty of a camera like this is that the picture you take is purely of that moment in time, it can't be altered, it may be imperfect, but I like that it really is just a capture of one moment."
But there are the more sobering aspects. As we award all who return the camera $5, I had suggested a lady I'd seen in the street earlier that day that she participate. As she walked in, too late for dinner and shattered, shivering and unable to focus, I was running through the competition details. She took her bag, but it was Rob who gave her a few dollars "Go get yourself something to eat" he said. It reminded me, that despite the camaraderie there is an ever present suffering underlying these people.
Day 2: I am now feeling exhausted as the remaining 30 of the 50 cameras are distributed. The characters have leapt out at us and emotionally it takes its toll. Old and young. Debbie, a measured delightful lady from Vietnam has already shared with us a beautiful image of Sydney behind a fence. Artistically driven, she wrote a short but moving piece in Wayside's collection of short stories.
Simon, who at first comes across as shy and a little grumpy showed us some photographs on his phone. He captured the strange essence of the apparent paper thin building in Pott's Point.
"I saw 3 foxes this morning" says one man, "I'm going back to photograph them, near the beach." Another lady I talk to is with her friend, Dave. "You don't want me in the competition" said Dave. "Why's that?" I countered. "All of the photos will be inappropriate" said she, smirking and looking at him with mock revulsion. "Maybe the calendar could be x-rated?" he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Coming back to Wayside in the evening to hand out the remaining 5 cameras, I reflected on all the lives we've had a snapshot into over the last couple of days. I feel humbled to be part of something involving such a diverse crew of characters. I also feel like I've crashed down to earth as my worries seem insignificant next to these guys.
Now we get on with promoting this calendar. We want to sell 500. We have a kickstarter campaign ready to go. We have gathered photographers to provide a panel judging the best photos. We have printing quotes ready. This is all really happening, and at a time where people are out celebrating, letting themselves go, spare a thought for the guys who maybe have nowhere to sleep tonight, but whose stories we can watch unfurl with the seasons of 2016, bringing us back down to earth and helping us love and appreciate these moments we have.
If you are curious about what we do, and would like to be a part of this, to witness 12 unique stories - one each month - then pre-order our calendar!