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Photographer Nigel Shafran’s latest work explores life on the street

Photographer Nigel Shafran’s latest work explores life on the street

October 08
05:26 2018

At first, it might be hard to work out what’s going on. A cockeyed version of street photography? An exercise in the bad selfie? An ego trip? But gradually, the repetition of the person in the pictures forces you to consider the person who isn’t. “It just came to me,” says the photographer Nigel Shafran, about the idea behind his new book, The People on the Street. “I find it difficult to see people who are in that position and not see them. I mean, they’re us, aren’t they? People like us.”

But for lots of people — the ones who walk past and pretend not to see them — the homeless and people begging on the street are invisible, and that’s one of the points the book makes: this is what we look like as we walk by. The vantage point is low, the images are blurred, bits of the street are visible in the background, so, too, are perplexed pedestrians, caught in the picture, wondering what’s going on.

Shafran, who lives in London, where the number of rough sleepers has doubled since 2010, began his project in 2016 and continued intermittently through the next year. While he was obviously aware of location and framing, for the most part he kept the exchange as simple as possible: he would go up to people on the street who appeared to be homeless, ask if they would take his picture, and usually they agreed. “Very few people said no,” he says. “People like to help, don’t they?” He gave them his camera, not a mobile phone, and some people were surprised he trusted them with it. In a few cases they directed him in the shot — “One man told me to ‘go to the top of that tree’”. Afterwards he always stopped and talked and learnt more about how they’d got there.

According to government statistics, more than 78,000 households were placed in temporary accommodation due to homelessness in England in 2017, and more than 9,000 people were sleeping rough. The authors of the annual Homelessness Monitor, which is commissioned by the charity Crisis, cite the Local Housing Allowance reforms introduced in 2011 as one of the major factors in the rise, as they have made it more difficult for low-income families to find places in the private rented sector.

Jane, Oxford Street, W1

Shafran says a lot of the stories he heard were about emotional problems, abusive relationships, family breakdowns or the kind of situation that meant a person had suddenly left home and couldn’t go back, or had lost their job and was sleeping on a friend’s floor.

“It’s about falling, isn’t it? It could happen to any of us,” he says, voicing the thought that motivates many who decide to give money to people in the street, or help them through a charity or in some other practical way.

Did he give his subjects money? “I did, sometimes,” he says. “More often I got them something to eat or drink — Coke, coffee, a sandwich, a burger. I bought one man a packet of cigarettes. I talked to a young girl on Oxford Street and she said restaurants frequently left food for them at the end of the day.”

Sacillus, Oxford Street, W1

The project made him uncomfortable, he admits, not only because of the obvious difference between his life and theirs, but also because of what it says about his profession. In a way, the book uses photography against itself: a comment on the selfie, the celebrity picture, fashion and beauty advertising and the stereotypical ways that photography aestheticises poverty. It was about his own vanity, too: the book uses at least one picture from every encounter, “however awful” it is.

But cumulatively, the real purpose becomes clear. It is not about the person in the pictures, but about the person not being shown. “Sometimes, not showing somebody makes you think about them more,” Shafran says. “I hoped it might stay with you, might reverberate, so when you walk past a person in the street it might come back to you. It was my way of addressing the subject, I suppose.”

Daniel, from Leytonstone, Charing Cross Underpass
Andrew, from Romania, Euston Road, NW1
Dave, Euston Square Station, NW1
Dave, Hop Gardens, WC2
Simone and his dog Bruno, Rue Tronchet, Paris 75008

“The People on the Street”, £30 inc UK p&p, is available from All profits go charity

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