Lee Jeffries is a photographer who captures more than just pictures. He lives in the United Kingdom, and photographs life, particularly of the homeless. An encounter with a homeless girl changed his outlook on street photography forever. Now, his portraits are open books, each one almost penetrating you with the tale of that someone gazing right back at you.
Could I ask you to recount your “chance meeting” with the homeless girl, from whom you stole the photo from? Did you really just up and snatch a photo from her sleeping bag?
I was in London to run the marathon a few years ago and spent the Saturday before the race wandering around the streets seeing if I could find something interesting to photograph. I stumbled across a young homeless girl near Leicester Square and started to take her picture. I was using a canon 5d with 70-200mm lens so was some distance away from her. She noticed me. She kicked up a right fuss!!! I was incredibly embarrassed and was faced with a decision…walk away…or apologize. I chose the latter and her story and subsequent images I took of her changed my approach to street photography forever.
The lighting for your photographs truly serves to capture the intensity of your subject’s eyes and other distinguishing features. When you discuss, with your subjects, the portraits you’ve taken of them, what is their reaction? Do they see themselves in this light?
I sometimes show my subjects the image I capture in camera. They always smile. Unfortunately, they almost never get to see the final artistic piece I produce. I process, predominately through dodge and burn, to develop the mood of the eyes. It’s the eyes that attracted me to take the photograph in the first place and this is always the starting point for the emotional element of the image.
What do you do with all the photos, of the homeless, you’ve taken? Where can we find you published or on display?
My photos can be found on Flickr, 500px and are available at YellowKorner in various locations across the world. They are releasing a book of images in the next month or so.
As photographers, we all have apprehensions when it comes to approaching individuals to ask them for permission before snapping up their portrait. Is there a method for you, and does taking to these individuals help with composition of their, soon to follow, portrait?
I don’t photograph every homeless person I see. I have had to have recognized something in them that I would consider would fit the emotional element I demand from my images. Having recognized that quality I play by the rules. I’m always polite…stay and talk for as long as they are comfortable having me there, offer them something be it food/money or even just a hug. I’m looking to capture an emotion and being so close allows me to do that. I wouldn’t get anything nearly as intimate if I was way across the street as indeed I was when I first started out on this process.
Europe, the United States, where, and what’s next in store for you, in terms of projects?
Looking for projects in Africa and Afghanistan. It’s a personal ambition to wander the slums in Kibera for example.
Who are some photographers that inspire you?
Without a doubt, James Nachtwey and Stephan Vanfleteren.
There’s a certain timelessness about your photos, I wouldn’t know when to place them, particularly when no clothes, hairstyles, or other indicative elements of current fashions are apparent. Is this intentional, and how do you feel when looking at and reflecting on your own work?
Yes. It’s intentional. I try my best to isolate the subject. It’s always about them. I process with light and shadow in an almost religious way. Indeed, when I work and view my images I’m sometimes moved to tears on that level.
Is it ever difficult, in terms of emotionally draining, to do what you do? Or is it, alternatively, gratifying, wholesome, for both you and your participants.
There are fun moments. Dangerous moments. Upsetting moments. I sometimes have to sit and hold hands whilst stories of rape…and worse are recounted. Witnessing the sense of community on skid row is heartwarming. Just sitting for a while with any one of them talking shit is more often than not hilarious for both of us. It all takes its toll. Good and bad.
People are often times afraid of the homeless – afraid that they might negatively affect them. Why do you think this is so, and what have you to tell them, having overcome that boundary?
I tell them that I was the same. The first time I went to Skid Row I was so scared I had to physically force myself to get out of the car. Once I had done…made that first move…I never looked back. I was greeted with warmth and I showed that same respect back to homeless population. Homeless people are just that, homeless. It could happen to anyone of us and in that respect, they are just the same as you and I.
To keep abreast of Lee’s intense portraits and other works, visit his Flickr.