What do you picture when you think about homelessness? Rows of tents, queues at soup kitchens, a rough sleeper in a doorway, someone holding up a cardboard sign with the words “Hungry, please help me” written on it?
This is not the face of homelessness you will see in Agency, a photography series at the heart of Home, a festival of arts and homelessness that opened in Coventry this weekend as part of its year-long City of Culture programme.
If the topic doesn’t seem appropriate for a festival, prepare to reconsider. This week-long “celebration” of arts and homeless services is co-produced by people with lived experience of homelessness in the city. And in the case of Agency, as the name suggests, it’s those people who are taking the pictures.
“Photographs of homeless people tend to be created in such a way where they seem to be an aberration of the urban environment,” says Anthony Luvera, the artist turned “photographic assistant” behind the project. “What I want to do is to work with people to take images where they feel involved, where they can control the process, and where they feel it best represents them.”
Luvera calls these photographs “assisted self-portraits” and they are the product of a months-long process of getting to know someone.
Someone like Mick Bickley, a Coventry local with experience of homelessness, who took Luvera back to his suburban childhood home to pose in front of the window of the room where he was born. It was his birthday that day too, says Luvera, and stories were exchanged of his childhood and the man he is now.
“I was only homeless for a short time, but it felt special to make my assisted self-portrait on my 65th birthday outside the house I was born in,” says Bickley.
“Homelessness can happen to anybody and I hope people seeing Agency will realise this.”
Luvera believes people experiencing homelessness are among the most marginalised and misrepresented in society.
“The predominant narrative of people tends to be centred on the problems the individual has faced – that they were somehow responsible for their situation, rather than the experience of homelessness being a consequence of the structural problems of the way in which society is organised,” he says.
To make an assisted self-portrait, Luvera meets the photographer subject in a location that is significant to them in some way, before teaching them how to use a digital medium format camera, including a hand held flash gun, a laptop tethered to the equipment, and the all important cable shutter release.
To get to this point, there have been weeks of workshops, first in the outdoor space of a cafe in the centre of town, later in the City of Culture shop. More than 30 people attended the workshops in Coventry, including 16 stalwart regulars.
Luvera invited them to take away disposable cameras to document their experiences and parts of the city that were important to them. He then issued an invitation to work with him individually to create their self-portrait.
“A traditional approach to portraits is very one-sided,” he says. “A photographer may spend a little bit of time getting to know someone, researching the topic, pointing a camera, taking a photo, then pissing off with the pictures.”
This process is necessarily slower. “It’s very much founded upon getting to know people in a holistic sense, holding a space that’s very social, very convivial, that’s centred around listening to people’s experiences and enabling their use of photography to articulate the things that matter to them.”
The project was first planned before the pandemic, then put on hold. In the summer between, Luvera began work on a project about homelessness in London with a journalist from a national newspaper and witnessed first-hand the impact of lockdown on people’s housing situations.
“Look, before the pandemic, I’d never seen levels of homelessness quite like it. Cut to the pandemic, when so many people found themselves without stable accommodation because of a whole myriad of circumstances, not least the [closure of the] gig economy in areas such as the hospitality industry – the number of people experiencing homelessness was off the chart.”
“At any one point in Trafalgar Square, there would be queues of 150/200 people waiting in line to receive food,” he says.
Luvera cites reports that homelessness rose by 70% during the pandemic – despite the initial impact of the Everybody In initiative, the government’s plan in March 2020 to bring all people sleeping rough in the UK – estimated at 6,000 –into emergency hotel and hostel accommodation.
“The initiative worked very well in many local authorities, including here in Coventry,” says Luvera, “not only because it housed people, but it brought them together with a network of services to work with them in a very targeted way to move on out of those hotels into more stable accommodation.”
The government has said the scheme is “ongoing,” but others have raised concerns about the number of people now on the streets again. Charities have said we need better, long-term solutions to truly help people like those in Luvera’s project.
“Agency” was a name that Luvera settled on in conversation with the project’s participants. It not only nods to the altered relationship between photographer and subjects, but the wider experiences of homelessness they have faced.
“When you are experiencing homelessness and reaching out to access services – valuable, amazing services that do great work – you still have to present yourselves through the lens of the problems you’re encountering,” he says. “Hopefully those problems can be solved but, still, your sense of agency in taking control of the situation you’re faced with is really very challenging.”
There is a third element, too. The photographs are going to be exhibited along Warwick Row, the main route in from Coventry station to the city centre – a street that is lined with estate agents. Luvera insists it’s not a critique of the sector, just an interesting context in which to show the work. The portraits will be on life-size white boards, above eye-level, looking down on passers by.
“What the pandemic showed us is that homelessness is a political choice and given the will and the investment, real measures towards solving homelessness can be put in place,” says Luvera. “On the one hand, it was heartbreaking to see what happened during the pandemic, but it also kind of inspiring to see that systems can be drastically overhauled.”
Here are some more of the participants and their stories:
Bernie Howarth: “The first time I was homeless, I was pregnant. I was sleeping in doorways and the support services that are available now just weren’t there. When I was homeless, I could have died. I could have starved. I could have frozen. When you’re homeless, you can have really hard times, but you can get through and become somebody else.
“I chose the location for my assisted self-portrait because, to me, it represents my past, my present and my future. And when I made my assisted self-portrait for Agency, I felt, ‘look at me now, I’ve achieved so much, despite the odds!’”
Ali Dualeh: “I enjoyed making my assisted self-portrait because I feel it is good to be part of a project that celebrates Coventry and also because I think people need to see what is going on in our city, that homelessness happens here.
“People in Coventry need to wake up to the fact this is happening in their town. Homelessness is a wake-up call for the world to change.”
Cecelia Stower: “Making my assisted self-portrait was special. I chose a location where my grandfather worked. He was a newspaper seller for the Coventry Evening Telegraph and I used to meet him there when I was a child.
“I hope people will see Agency and realise that just because someone is experiencing homelessness they are not down and out. Everyone has talents and positive qualities. People experiencing homelessness are not worthless.
“When people walk past someone who is homeless, instead of ignoring them, they should take the time to acknowledge the person.”