Back in July I was commissioned to take portraits of social workers for some of Wellington’s leading NGO’s working in the field of homelessness and mental health. I was given three days to photograph five people. You may think three days is a long time, but when you combine it with a full-time job, five portraits can be a tight squeeze to arrange in three days! Especially if you don’t want all of your portraits shot at night. Luckily it provided the opportunity to test my new camera’s low light capability by shooting most of the shots in available light. Coupled with a 50mm 1.4 lens, I think the camera did quite an amazing job. The majority of these shots were completed in 20 minutes, having squeezed them in either before or after work, or during my lunch hour.
Manager of the Wellington Night Shelter, Mike Leon, chats to a guest outside the night shelter on Taranaki Street, Wellington. Mike has worked for the shelter for over 17 years and says working with the homeless is an expression of his faith and personality.
Mike displays one of the small cubicles where a night shelter guest will sleep.
Acting chief executive of Wellink Trust, a mental health charity based in Wellington. Shaun has been working in the field of mental health for 25 years and immigrated to Wellington from Scotland for this specific job.
Echo Brooke-White is a volunteer and chairperson of Catacombs social centre on Manners Street, Wellington. Catacombs provides refreshments and a place to relax and stay warm for Wellington’s marginalised communities.
Philippa Meachen, manager of the Compassion Centre Soup Kitchen on Wellington’s Tory Street, poses for a portrait in the waiting room while guest’s wait for breakfast to be served.
Director of Downtown Community Ministry, Stephanie McIntyre.
After the last-minute rush trying to get prints organised, blurbs written, and the final few interviews with guests completed, the open-day exhibition at the soup kitchen last Saturday (24th March) went amazingly well. There was a steady stream of people all day, Wellington’s weather wasn’t as crap as was predicted, and even Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown popped by for a visit. Makes me wonder why I was so nervous! The images were well received with many people stating the images and stories were very moving. But must importantly of all, the soup kitchen guests, without whose co-operation this project would not have been a success, were very happy with the results and enjoyed seeing their pictures on the wall. I would just like to say a big thanks to Philippa and Nikki, and the other soup kitchen staff who helped with the organising of the exhibition, and the pain-staking process of aligning the prints on the wall! Here are a few pictures from the big day.
Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown gives artist Manu a Hongi - a traditional Maori greeting.
Artist Manu and Wellington mayor Celia Wade-Brown pose with some of Manu's artworks.
The documentary project at the soup kitchen of the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre in Wellington was a natural progression from my 2011 Rugby World Cup project. When the rugby world cup finished, I carried on visiting the soup kitchen two-to-three times per week, gradually building up a rapport and trust amongst some of the soup kitchen guests. The images below are the result of a six month process of relationship building, photographing, interviewing and finally gaining consent for the use of the images. With the final images now chosen, there’s three weeks left to go until the deadline and I still need to nail down the final few consents and interview some of the guests.
The exhibition is to be held at the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre during a community initiative called Neighbours Day on the 24th March. The images will only be on display for just the one day as the Compassion Centre is not usually open to the public. The Compassion Centre Soup Kitchen serves some of the most marginalised people in Wellington, and provides breakfast for up to 50 guests and dinner for up to 90 guests everyday, six days a week.
Mohammad and Ivan - For Mohammad, the Soup Kitchen and other services for the homeless, help develop a sense of community and belonging amongst service-users.
‘After all we’re all in the same boat. (Street people) form their own bonds and try to support each other in any way they can.’
When asked about the stereotype that streeties “choose” to live on the streets, Mohammad remarks:
‘There’s a form of misplacement in society. Some people encounter more barriers or difficulties in their lives which they struggle to overcome.’
These barriers, often beyond an individual’s control, can take a variety of forms. Difficult circumstances like domestic violence, dysfunctional relationships, or mental health issues can make a person feel isolated and estranged from family, friends, co-workers or society as a whole. In other cases, a single tragic event, like the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job, can trigger a downward spiral of joblessness, debt, loneliness and social marginalisation, where living on the street becomes “the choice”.
‘Coupled with limited help and support, and lacking the tools to enable them to deal with their individual circumstances, people then hide behind alcohol and drugs to avoid their problems.’
‘Often their choices are very limited. For example, they can either live on the street or be abused by their family. What would you choose?'
Wi - Wi was a regular visitor to the Soup Kitchen while he was living at the Wellington Night Shelter. He now lives with his brother while he is waiting to pick up scaffolding work.
‘I used to work as a forester up the East Coast, and now I work as a scaffolder. I’m waiting for my boss to call when there’s more work available. I can’t wait to get back into work; it gets real boring just hanging around.’
This is the first photo of himself Wi has ever had. When I tracked him down and gave him the photo, he immediately asked: ‘Can I get it printed bigger?’
Clarke - Clarke lived in Thailand for four years and owned a bar - with an artificial climbing wall - in the resort town of Chang Mai.
On New Year’s Eve 2008, the wall was destroyed in a fire. ‘The climbing wall was the drawcard for visitors; the bar began losing money as the customers fell away.’
Clarke continued to live in Thailand as he was married to a Thai national. However, in 2009, Clarke was falsely arrested for trafficking conspiracy (a minor charge) and spent 13 months on remand at the infamous Bang Kwang prison in Bangkok.
The charges against him were eventually dropped, but legal fees had consumed the majority of his life savings. Clarke was released and placed in a detention centre for several weeks before being deported to New Zealand in 2010, with nothing but the clothes on his back and little funds.
Clarke has been living on the streets of Wellington for two years. Like some other Soup Kitchen guests, he spends his days drinking and doing the circuit of the social agencies which support Wellington’s marginalised communities.
Clarke recently completed a five-week residential detox programme, without touching a drop of alcohol, but within the first hour after completing the programme, he had his first drink in hand. When asked why he said:
‘I prefer the foggy haze of inebriation to the stark reality of sobriety. When drinking, I have nothing to worry about. After being released (from rehab) where else is there for me to go? What else is there for me to do? Nothing changes.’
Arama and Sister Louisa
Tim (left) - ‘The best part of coming here is asking: “What is your name? Where do you come from? What did you do?”’ says Tim, whose hands shake uncontrollably from the side effects of the medication he takes to combat manic depression, or bipolar disorder as it’s now known. ‘The meal is always good value, but it’s after the meal I come here for: the company and the companionship.’ ‘Everyone’s an amateur philosopher. Sometimes we solve all the worlds’ problems.’
Nicky - Nicky first worked with the Sisters of Compassion 20 years ago at the Home in Island Bay. Last year, when she was training, she had her work placement at the Soup Kitchen, where she’s now a member of the kitchen staff.
‘I wasn’t so overly confident when I first started here. However, I very much enjoy cooking for the guests, and I feel like I’m helping to make a difference.’
Cooking for the 2011Christmas dinner, for over 160 guests, has been the highlight of Nicky’s work so far. Putting the effort in to create healthy and appealing food and seeing the guys enjoying it is really rewarding.
Mokena - When I first met Mokena he had only recently arrived in Wellington, and he carried all his worldly possessions in his back pack. Mokena was running from family difficulties. He had a keen interest in design and was fiercely determined to make his life in Wellington a success. After a couple of weeks of living rough, he began living at the Wellington Night Shelter and secured a job working at McDonalds on Taranaki Street.
Before I was able to speak with him again, Mike Leon, Manager of the Wellington Night Shelter, told me Mokena had become quite unwell and was assisted by health services to move back up north to be with extended Whanau.
‘He's a good kid not seeing a lot of hope at the moment.’ – Mike Leon.
Sister Josefa - When she first worked as a Sister of Compassion when she was young, Sister Josefa avoided working at the Soup Kitchen as she didn’t know how to engage with men who had alcohol problems or other social issues.
‘Initially I felt insecure and unsure of how to deal with the Soup Kitchen guests. For me, it was an unknown. I did not know how street people lived or how to meet with them.’
‘Now working at the Soup Kitchen, I find I enjoy it very much. It’s wonderful, being older and more experienced I enjoy the people I encounter while working here. They give me something about life. They teach me a lot.’
After nearly 40 years of service with the Sisters of Compassion, Sr Josefa continues to embrace her work, welcoming the chance to do new things, making the most out of every day. As Sr Josefa says, ‘life is short’.
Andrew - A mature student of psychology who drove trucks to partially fund his studies, Andrew arrived in Wellington in 2008 to look for employment.
Debts started to mount up while he struggled to pay back his student loans. Andrew became increasingly stressed while trying to manage his finances, and voluntarily resigned from his employment. He was unable to pay his rent and loans, and began drinking as a way of coping.
Andrew is now homeless with no fixed address. Until recently he was living at the Occupy camp at Civic Square.
Andrew is quite blunt about his situation: ‘Once you are homeless and living on the street, hoop-jumping between government agencies makes it difficult to get back on your feet. You need a residential address and phone to be contacted about jobs. If you don’t have this, finding work is difficult.’
Terry and Samson - ‘There’s a few of us who share amongst ourselves. It’s mostly alcohol. Most of them wouldn’t share a cigarette, as they don’t have one themselves’, Samson says as we sit in the Whare with other Soup Kitchen regulars, as they share the proceeds of the afternoon’s “butt” run – a collection of partially smoked cigarettes.
‘Terry and I hang around a lot on the street together. We enjoy the camaraderie and the companionship. Us guys on the street watch out for each other though we don’t look out for each other.’
‘You can’t rely on other ‘streeties’ to save you. Life on the street is about survival. You have to contend with the elements, with people who are being snobbish and abusive towards you, and security guards and coppers constantly waking you up and moving you on.’
‘Sometimes life on the street is a choice, a choice of narrowed options, but a choice all the same. Everyone’s got problems. Some of us show it. Some of us don’t. Some of us just don’t like asking for help.’
In Terry’s case, however, it wasn’t so much a choice as a moment of bad luck that changed his life over 30 years ago. At the age of 19 the glass-blower was involved in a bad car accident that left him unconscious in hospital for over a month. He’s had problems with his short-term memory ever since, and is now living on the streets.
‘I was at the night shelter, but I was told to leave because I have no money. I used to stay at the railway station, but was told by police they would use a dog to catch people who stay in the trains. I think they are unfair, and I wish the policemen would leave me as I am.’