Picturing homelessness: photographer Donal McCann

Looking IN Photographer Donal McCann explains how picturing homelessness on Belfast’s streets changed his attitude to the problem.

There was something about the eyes of Belfast’s homeless people that really drew Donal McCann close to them. Some revealed sadness, others real hope. Twenty black and white portraits from the project with them were displayed at the Waterfront Hall’s ‘Looking In’ exhibition during June.

He was invited by a friend involved in the Welcome Organisation to take some photos to document its work with rough sleepers.

Welcome’s volunteer teams find people who are on the streets and make around 1,800 contacts each month; many of these involve giving help to the same people. They earn their trust and provide healthy food, showers, clean clothes and practical advice from their drop-in centre. Around 130 people benefit from the centre every week.

Not as many rough sleepers are seen in Belfast as in the rest of the UK. Many homeless people stay temporarily at a house or flat between spending time on the street. There are currently 2,605 homeless people in Belfast.

The first photos, taken 10 months ago, were shot from a distance and therefore are not particularly personal images.

He was wary at first but that changed when he saw how Welcome’s Director, Sandra Moore, was able promote its work through the photos.

“It was the first time that I realised that my pictures were making a difference because Sandra used them in publications and presentations, and it really did make people’s ears pick up and look at the images.”

Five months later, he was invited back to picture 25 homeless people over a seven- week period. Hundreds of frames were taken, before being whittled down to 20 for the exhibition.

A photo needed to show real character to be chosen.

“They really do look out for each other. It’s a community within itself,” he says. “Even though those people are drunk and they’re homeless, they are the exact same as anybody with just a bit of bad luck in their life.

“The idea of getting a strong image really for me centres around the eyes and for the majority of these portraits, I really concentrated on that.”

Taking the photos from three feet away made a real difference compared to his first series, where he wasn’t really building a rapport. Now that he knows some of the people pictured and has built up a friendship, he stops and asks them how they’re doing when he sees them on the street, or offers them a cup of tea.Looking IN

“That’s something. It’s not life-changing but I can certainly relate to it,” he continues, adding that being homeless can happen to anyone, maybe because of a relationship breaking down, or losing a job.

Most homeless people don’t have the support of friends or family and while some have strong will power, others fall into the wrong crowd.

Life on the streets, in itself, takes its toll. The average person using Welcome’s services is male, 37 years old, with a drug or alcohol addiction, mental health problems and poor literacy.

The estimated average lifespan of a rough sleeper is not much higher at 42 years – a shorter life expectancy than in Afghanistan and similar to African countries such as Lesotho and Sierra Leone. Most people in Northern Ireland can expect to live into their mid-70s.

To donate or volunteer with the Welcome Organisation, call 028 9024 0424 or visit www.homelessbelfast.org

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