By Perry Lefko
Leah Denbok is set on becoming a professional photographer and she has developed a niche, taking photos of the plight of homeless people.
Last September, the 17-year-old Collingwood Grade 12 student, self-published a book, Nowhere To Call Home – Photographs And Stories Of The Homeless. It’s a compilation of stark black and white photos she started taking in 2014 with the help of her father, Tim. Together they have roamed the streets of Barrie, Toronto, Windsor, Hamilton, Kitchener, Newmarket and New York asking homeless people for permission to take their photos. They paid each of their subjects $10.
The book contains photos of people of all ages and whose plights are described in words based on interviews Tim did with each of the subjects. The royalties from the book, which sells for $20, are being given to the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre run by the Salvation Army.
A second volume of photos is scheduled to be released in June.
Leah’s mother, Sara, was a homeless person at the age of three and was rescued by a police officer from the streets of Calcutta. Sara was taken to an orphanage run by Mother Teresa and lived there for two years before being adopted by Eldon and Audrey Bell of Stayner.
“Through my book I’m hoping to humanize homelessness because so often they are viewed as subhuman individuals that we shouldn’t interact with,” Leah said at an event at the St. Joseph Parish in Mississauga, organized by Catholic Women’s League. “I want to shine a light on the plight of the homelessness, (which) is definitely a problem in Canada. Every year in our country, there are almost 250,000 men, women and children who have nowhere to call home. I try my best to portray people who are experiencing homelessness with dignity.”
Leah said it is rewarding to have a published book because of the years that went into doing it.
“At the beginning we hadn’t actually planned on doing a book or any of this,” she said. “I was just taking photos of (homeless) people mainly for artistic reasons because they have interesting faces and I’m a portrait photographer. I was just trying to broaden my portfolio, but once we began to meet these people and learn their stories and really see the reality of what homelessness is and how big of a problem is, we decided to do a book series.”
The idea of photographing homeless people was suggested by Tim. He showed his daughter some online photographs of the homeless by British photographer Lee Jeffries, who shoots for National Geographic, and encouraged his daughter to do something similar.
“I’m pretty shy, so if it wasn’t for him I don’t think I would have ever been able to do it,” Leah said. “It definitely brought us closer together. It’s really fantastic. My mother isn’t the leading reason I began photographing people experiencing homelessness. She’s definitely been an inspiration, though maybe only subconsciously, because I’ve always grown up hearing her story. We’ve had Mother Teresa pictures around the house and my parents are always talking about her. It wasn’t like my mother was homeless so I’m going to do this.
“Through my childhood I was always fascinated with photography but, at the age of 12, I decided taking photos with my iPod wasn’t doing it. So, I went to a local shop and bought a used SLR and began taking photographs around my house of spider webs and flowers.”
While she didn’t think the photos were any good, her father sent them to Jeffries and he responded by saying Leah was on her way to becoming a great photographer.
“Then I realized I had talent, I guess, so I really started pursuing that full-time,” she said. “That’s what got me into photographing the homeless. I was just starting a little business in Collingwood doing portraits and weddings to make money.”
She admits all the attention she has received because of her work is “definitely overwhelming.”
“We never expected the media or anybody would really be interested in people experiencing homelessness,” she said. “I just thought it would be like any other project I’ve had. Before I was photographing people experiencing homelessness, I had a project photographing the elderly and nursing homes throughout Collingwood. It didn’t work out because we had trouble getting permission from their children.
“Nobody paid any attention to that (project), so I didn’t expect that anyone would pay attention to this. But once I started, I realized how much of a problem homelessness is and then the media kind of grabbed on to that. It took me by surprise because it got kind of crazy after that.”
She has appeared on CTV, CBC and the BBC. At the insistence of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a short video of Leah at work was produced by Employment and Social Development Canada, which is responsible for social programs at the federal level. It was shown at the Poverty Reduction Conference, which was attended by Trudeau and leading government officials. In September, she was invited, along with dignitaries such as Prince Harry and the President of the United Nations General Assembly, to address 40,000 people at the WE Day event at the Air Canada Centre. She has also been invited to exhibit and speak at the Women of the World Festival, April 6-8 in Australia.
Photo: Melanie Nazareth, (left), one of the organizers of the book-signing event organized by Catholic Women’s League at the St. Joseph Parish in Mississauga, and Leah Denbok.