Thursday, July 11, 2013

Face to Face with Homelessness

In September of 2010, the Dutch photographer Jan Banning was casting about for a new subject.

He was living in Columbia, serving as Artist in Residence at 701 Center for Contemporary Art, when a CCA board member made a suggestion: why not homelessness?

Banning resisted.

“I thought, my goodness, no. Not homeless. We’ve seen that,” Banning recalled from his home in Utrecht, The Netherlands, during a transatlantic Skype interview with Free-Times.

Still, he looked into it. He got in touch with Supportive Housing Services at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine, which provides help for Columbia’s homeless population. He saw the idea in a new light: the homeless not as types, but as people.

It wasn’t a new approach for Banning, who has previously devoted whole series to thematic portraits. One was Comfort Women, featuring aging women who had been forced into prostitution in Japan in World War II.

Another was Bureaucratics, which was exhibited at the 701 Center, a startling and often funny series which showed government clerks from around the world in their natural habitats, ranging from chaotic hovels in India to tacky government offices in Texas.

For the homeless, he opted for the approach that had worked with Comfort Women: close-up color studio portraits.

The results – which combine pictures in Columbia with ones taken in Atlanta and the Mississippi Delta -- have now been collected in a book, Down and Out in the South.

                        b. Naironi, Kenya, 1987

The faces tell the story. Many are recognizably worn down by years of hard living. You see it in the eyes: some bloodshot, some jaundiced, some with a faraway, vacant expression that suggests mental illness. Some have prominent scars: a middle-aged white woman with fresh bruises, an African-American young man with an eye-patch. Names and birth dates caption each shot, which often reveal people who are younger than they look. An embracing couple seem like mother and son, until you notice the woman is only four years older than the man.

The years haven’t caught up to all of them. A brunette in her early thirties could just as easily be a schoolteacher or doctor or writer. Several of the young men could be college students or factory workers with families to support -– which, perhaps, they once were.

                        Charles and Victoria,
                        b. Columbia, S.C., 1976;
                        b. Abilene, Texas, 1975

When Banning initiated the project in Columbia, he found help from Tom Bolton, an outreach worker from Supportive Services. Bolton – “a tremendously great guy with huge social capabilities,” Banning said -- knew both the streets and the people. With Bolton running interference, he met little resistance.

Banning’s method was to create an intimate atmosphere. Once he had a subject in his makeshift studio at an empty office at Supportive Services, he would get them to talk about themselves, asking how they became homeless and if they saw a way out.

As the conversation progressed, lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, Banning would move closer. He would talk to himself, sometimes in English, sometimes in Dutch.

“You get into this kind of hypnotic atmosphere, which I think is interesting. The people on the other side of the camera are to a certain extent left to themselves. We’re not communicating at that moment, although I am making sounds, noises, sometimes incomprehensible, maybe almost like a magician, and I think what happens to people is they’re still in the atmosphere of the previous conversation.”

Banning’s method of getting reactions from his subject reflects his own philosophy of photography.

“Forget about the camera, forget about subject, it is first and foremost an encounter between two people,” he said. “So you get what you invest, in an emotional sense. If you are afraid or too shy or whatever to make contact with these people, or any person for that matter, it’s not going to work. You have to relate as a human being. That is, also, I think, where you have influence on the portrait. In a way, it also mirrors the personality of the photographer.”

For Banning, the subjects of the pictures are indicative of life in a country where the gap between rich and poor is enormous, and success and failure is always a matter of personal initiative. Even his subjects viewed life from the same perspective.

“What I had expected people in those circumstances to do and what Europeans would probably do, is blame society, and see this in the context of society, let’s say, a political view of it. And what struck me here is if I asked people what they wanted to do, how are you going to get out of this, it was always individual. It was `I have a plan.’ And the plan was sometimes completely absurd. There’s someone in his late 40s, dreaming of becoming a stand-up comedian. It’s hardly likely it is going to work. But to me, that was very significant of a U.S. attitude. It’s all individualized. It’s `I have to get out of it.’ It is not a problem of society, it is not a political problem -- it is in a way the nightmare version of the American dream.”

                       David. b. Detroit, Mich., 1967

Banning said he has received a very positive response to the photographs in Holland, France and Germany, either through public exhibitions or publication in Internet magazines. The US response, based on comments at the CNN website or at, has involved more debate. On native soil, the sympathy isn’t always there.

Banning said he wants the exhibition to cause a certain amount of confusion, and he’s tried to make sure of that in the book’s publication. If you purchase the book, you not only get a hardback version, but a more cheaply-bound “giveaway edition,” twice as big but on thinner paper, with slightly different content.

“Once you give it away, the book is not complete anymore. The whole idea is to confront people with how they handle property, which of course is an important matter. Homelessness is not just about poverty, but poverty is certainly one of the aspects of it. So the book is trying to make people think about how they handle property, what they do with property. You buy a book – are you really going to give away part of it?”

It’s all part of dealing with a confrontational topic.

“My biggest fear was that the whole project would end up unnoticed because people don’t want to hear about the homeless,” he said. “So, in that sense, the outcome is fantastic. People do want to hear about it.”

(Down and Out in the South is available at It may be purchased in either the hardback ($44.00) or iBook ($11.00) edition. The website also includes audio links to several of Banning’s interviews with his subjects.)

(Photos courtesy of Jan Banning.)

This story originally appeared in the July 10, 2013 Free-Times.


Thurman said...

This is great!

Anonymous said...

I am creating a page which documents the many brutal
homeless camp closings in California:

California Homelessness Reporter

Please let me know if you hear of any more!