Homelessness Through the Lens of Photographer Leah den Bok

Visitors to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia expect to feel uncomfortable at the very least. A museum of science and medical history, the Mütter displays only a fragment of the over-37,000 objects in its collection: specimens, antique medical equipment, and wax models. Among other infamous specimens, the museum retains a cancerous tumor that was excised from President Grover Cleveland’s hard palate, thoracic tissue from the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and a shared liver from the American conjoined twins, Chang and Eng Bunker. 

In the Mütter Museum, guests tend to speak in library whispers. There’s a palpable, anxious hush to the place interrupted occasionally by quiet bursts of uneasy laughter. The galleries are small. The walls are lined with vitrines containing, in some cases, nightmarish anomalies like keratin horns that once protruded from bodies and mini-fridge-sized tumors. Out of respect for the humans whose partial remains contribute to the vast holdings of the museum, no photographs are permitted.

In a separate, light-filled gallery to the right of the main foyer, however, photographs are the centerpieces of an exhibition on homelessness. Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health “confronts,” explains the Mütter Museum, “the crisis of housing insecurity in America through the lens of public health.” In particular, the exhibition focuses on homelessness in the Philadelphia Metropolitan Area but, of course, the crisis is not limited to Philadelphia or Pennsylvania.

Arresting, large-format, black-and-white portrait photographs of varying sizes by Leah den Bok, arranged in a windowpane-style montage across one wall of the gallery, are paired with (on the opposite wall) Dallas-based artist, Willie Baronet’s, multimedia installation “composed of hundreds of cardboard signs the artist has purchased over the past thirty years from people experiencing homelessness.” 

Click image to enlarge.

Leah, a photographer who lives and works in Toronto, is still in her early 20s; she has a studio arts, photography, and art history background and earned her BA in Photography at Sheridan College (Toronto). Her now-internationally-recognized project, “Humanizing the Homeless,” began as a school portfolio assignment. Students were challenged to produce, writes Keiko Kataoka of Sheridan Newsroom, “50 photos of people unknown to them.” The goal of the assignment was to work “in unmediated conditions [while] interacting with unfamiliar subjects.”

Leah’s photos are presented in the larger context of an exhibition that considers homelessness not only as a serious social and economic problem, but also a dire public health matter. As a counterpoint to her images and the brief and occasionally pithy text of Baronet’s signs, placards containing data concerning homelessness are installed around the gallery. 

The public health content was provided by Dr. Rosie Frasso, Professor of Population Health, Program Director, Public Health at Thomas Jefferson University, and Dr. René Najera, Doctor of Public Health specializing in infectious disease, population health, and social determinants of health and Instructor of epidemiology and biostatistics at George Mason University and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In this unique exhibition, art and text combine to explore, notes the Mutter Museum, “the difficult truth that simply being without a home is a dangerous health condition.”

One placard titled, “An Invisible Population,” informs: 

Approximately 653,100 people experienced homelessness in the United States in 2023. That 

is an increase of 12% from 2022. It was the largest one-year jump since the Department of 

Housing and Urban Development began collecting data in 2007.

The homeless are not “invisible,” however, although authorities have often been unrelenting in their efforts to render them as such. From police sweeps of encampments of the unhoused to laws banning “rough sleeping” and “panhandling,” the growing crisis of homelessness is not being addressed by societies and their governments. Instead, resources are directed at eradicating homelessness by, in truth, eradicating the homeless. 

The theatricality of Leah’s portraits feels necessary, just as do her performances on the world stage. Indeed, although still in her early 20s, her work has garnered international attention and numerous awards such as the SNAP Photo Award (2020) and the RBC Ascend Rising Star award (2021). In 2017, she spoke to an audience of 40,000 alongside Prince Harry and Kofi Annan at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for WE Day. Not incidentally, an interview with Leah was published by Assembly, a Malala.org publication. 

Most of Leah’s portraits are extremely close-cropped. Similar to documentary portraits by photographers well-known for their images of homeless and otherwise marginalized people such as Pedro Oliveira and Lee Jeffries, they are slightly grainy and largely exclusive of nuance, of shades of gray. 

Jeffries lived on the streets for weeks at a time as he photographed his homeless subjects. No doubt, the goal was to gain deeper insight into the plights of the individuals he depicted and to foster trust. However, under the circumstances, the implication is that one must empathize with someone seemingly less fortunate in order to take corrective action. Further, it is crucial to consider that, despite feeling objective, photography is anything but impartial.

Early on, with her own project, Leah and her father, Tim den Bok offered her portrait subjects $10 to pose and share their stories, although the latter was completely voluntary. Both photographers had came to their projects – and returned from them as well – from positions of privilege. 

The subject of homelessness had deep personal resonance for Leah. Her mother had been a homeless child in Kolkata and was given shelter by Mother Teresa’s charity at age four. Thus, what began as a “portfolio-building exercise,” transformed into a much larger project: in short, to shed light on the North American homelessness crisis by humanizing people directly affected by it.

For Leah, the portraits were never meant to stand alone. Pairing the voluntary, short biographies or anecdotes of her subjects with their portraits was critical. “Although my goal was to eliminate judgment,” she elaborated, “[before I presented the stories,] people would look at the photograph and judge the subject. They’d think, ‘Well, that person looks like an addict,’ or ‘They look dangerous.’ The stories make it harder to do that.”

Leah credits her father with the original idea for her ongoing project, which quickly transformed into activism, of centering homelessness. As she began the work at age 15, he accompanied her on photo shoots for the first few years. “I had grown up in a small town that didn’t have any external homelessness,” she explained in an interview with Friesen Press. “I had heard negative things, like everybody has—that they ‘choose’ to be there, and they’re all dangerous, or addicts.” 

Leah’s portraits are largely frontal and, more often than not, the subjects do not meet the gaze of the viewer. Rather, they look downwards or off to one side. Arguably, the poses are not merely standard for portraiture, whether painted or photographed, or otherwise. Rather, this dynamic is embedded in societies’ normalization of homelessness. It is transactional in the sense that the haves must or at least should look and the have-nots must look away. In subverting eye contact, both parties are expected to conclude that nothing can be done about “the problem,” that it is intractably perennial and part of the natural order of things. 

Not all of the subjects look away, however, some meet the gaze of the photographer and subsequently the viewer. Interrupting the expected narrative, the physiognomy of “down-and-out,” the wizened, dour, prematurely-aged faces and worn-out garments and such are a couple of contemporary Pietà compositions that remind viewers that (according to Family Gateway), “family homelessness accounts for 37% of the overall homeless population and 50% of the sheltered population.” The portraits absolutely are sentimental. Why shouldn’t they be? 

In contrast to the grave black-and-white portraits and impersonal (but vital) data, the cardboard signs proffered by Baronet inject literal color into the discourse of the gallery. Somehow, via an economy of words, the signs’ makers extend their pleas, tell their stories, and/or make their cases. Many read like clever marketing slogans (a concept possibly too painful to contemplate): 

Pregnant, Homeless, & Hungry. Anything helps! Thank you & God Bless!

RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS (I’M REALLY COLD)

DEAR God, What happened?

Need $14 To go to Brothers Funeral Please

OUT OF GAS ANYTHING HELPS

NEED SLEEPING BAG – PLEASE

Across the gallery, about ten steps away from the portrait wall, three small pedestals hold Leah’s books. The stories of each of the sitters represented on the walls are published in the books and paired with their likenesses. They are their words, evidently unedited. Should either photographer or viewer be tempted to resort to stereotypes, the stories are available–just ask?

I am not convinced that there is a “right” or more ethical way to challenge the normalization of homelessness and the structural violence of which it is a devastating consequence. I looked at Leah’s portraits with a degree of cynicism, not least because they rely on aesthetic conventions that feel emotionally manipulative–a sort of visual hyperbole. Are they reductive? Possibly so. However, can they function on multiple levels? As vehicles for social change? As challenges to the visual tropes and binary oppositions of positive and negative visibility with which they engage?  

I think Leah’s portraits are successful here, in this exhibition, in this context, as they are being presented in a space that is intended to resist reductiveness. There is no deception here. The objective is clear: to amplify the voices of the unheard, to see the invisible [people]. Importantly, however, the information the subjects provide is completely voluntary.

Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health is on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia until August 6, 2024. A special exhibition in the Thomson Gallery, admission may be free if visitors do not intend to visit the collection galleries. Inquire with the museum before visiting.

© Debra Thimmesch (4/4/24) — Special for FF2 Media

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Learn more about the Mütter Museum’s Unhoused: Personal Stories and Public Health exhibit.

Read about Leah den Bok’s exhibit Humanizing the Homeless.

Learn more about Willie Baronet’s work, We Are All Homeless.

Read a feature on Leah den Bok’s early work, “Photography student sharpens focus on people experiencing homelessness”, from Sheridan Newsroom.

Read “Turning Art into Action: Inside Leah den Bok’s 10-Year Journey to End Homelessness” from Friesen Press.

Leah den Bok’s essay “Nowhere to Call Home” on Assembly.

Learn more facts and statistics about family homelessness from Family Gateway.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Leah den Bok’s Humanizing the Homeless exhibit at The Mütter Museum.

Middle photo: Willie Baronet’s exhibit of cardboard signs often held my unhoused individuals on display at The Mütter Museum.

Bottom photo: Visitors were asked to provide feedback to a variety of questions concerning homelessness.

All photos taken by Debra Thimmesch for FF2 Media (2/5/24). Authorized for responsible use as long as user includes link to THIS post in photo credits.

Tags: Debra Thimmesch, homelessness, Leah den Bok, Mütter Museum, Philadelphia, photography, Willie Baronet

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Debra Thimmesch is an art historian and critic, activist, independent researcher and scholar, writer, editor, and visual artist. She mentors graduate students in art history and is attuned to current endeavors to radically rethink, decolonize, and reframe the study and pedagogy of art history. Her work has appeared in Art Papers, The Brooklyn Rail, and Blind Field Journal.
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