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Collingwood photographer aims to humanize homelessness through pictures

Photograph taken by 18-year-old photographer Leah Denbok, an excerpt from her book 'Nowhere to Call Home.'. Leah Denbok / Provided

An 18-year-old photographer Leah Denbok and her father Tim, have spent the last several years travelling across North America photographing individuals experiencing homelessness in order to help to tell their stories.

Denbok, who has been taking photos since she was 12 years old, decided to begin taking photos of people experiencing homelessness after her photography teacher suggested she pursue her natural gift of portraiture.

Her father, Tim, suggested she photograph individuals experiencing homelessness.

Admittedly, Denbok says she was wary at first, having heard negative stereotypes about individuals living on the streets.

Leah Denbok / Provided

However, after venturing to Toronto to take some photos, Denbok found it to be the complete opposite of what she expected.

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“These people are so much different than what we’re told of them. They’re often quite kind and humble people and very grateful for any help provided to them and very open to talking with you because they’re so often ignored by the general public,” she said.

When they began the project, Denbok says she wasn’t aware of just how pervasive the issue of homelessness was.

“At first, we were just taking their photograph because I was trying to build my portfolio in portraiture, but gradually when we saw what a big problem it was, we decided to turn it into a project and that was about four years ago now,” she said.

Now, having photographed more than 400 individuals across North America and Australia, Denbok has made it a goal to help humanize people often overlooked and wrongly stereotyped.

Denbok and her father have created a system. While Denbok takes the photos, her father chats with the individuals and asks about their background, often uncovering heart-wrenching stories of loss and resilience.

“We are trying to shine a light on the issue of homelessness so that people will realize it’s not just a little thing, it’s in all of the cities, and secondly, to humanize because sadly, we have to humanize people in society who are already human because we’ve come up with this weird stereotype of these people that is just so wrong.”

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Leah Denbok / Provided

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However, Denbok says subconsciously, the decision to photograph individuals experiencing homelessness may have derived from somewhere else.

Denbok’s mother, Sara, was homeless as a child and had been taken in and cared for at Mother Teresa’s orphanage.

“It’s not the whole reason I decided to photograph people experiencing homelessness, but it’s definitely had an impact on me,” she said. “I heard the story of Mother Teresa growing up and how she helped those who didn’t have a home, and just her philosophy, I’ve sort of taken it as a motto throughout my life.”

In November of 2017, Denbok released her first book titled Nowhere to Call Home: Photographs and Stories of the Homeless Volume 1. The book, a compilation of stunning black-and-white photography, showcases dozens of individuals and includes their unique stories of how they ended up on the streets.

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Click to play video: 'Young Ontario photographer captures hardship of homelessness' Young Ontario photographer captures hardship of homelessness
Young Ontario photographer captures hardship of homelessness – Nov 27, 2017

Denbok says she is glad her work has also been able to help tell these important stories and help bring awareness to the widespread issue of homelessness.

Her work has also helped to raise money for folks experiencing homelessness.

“We donate 100 per cent of the profits from the sales of the books, and the sales of my canvasses, because I also have an exhibit that is moving around Canada and Australia, and we donate 100 per cent of those sales to homeless shelters.”

The profits from Denbok’s first book were donated to the Salvation Army Bayside Mission in Barrie.

Now, less than a year later, Denbok is poised to release her second book, Nowhere to Call Home: Photos and Stories of the Homeless Volume 2, scheduled to be released in October.

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And with a third book set to release in January and a fourth book in the works, Denbok is committed to telling the stories of hundreds of people forgotten and overlooked by society.

“Before I started doing this work, I didn’t really realize you could make a difference with an image that you take, and now that I’ve discovered that, it’s been sort of a life goal of mine to continue work like that.”

Currently, Denbok’s work is being showcased at Old Town Hall in downtown Newmarket. The exhibit is scheduled to run until Sept. 12, and is free of charge.

Leah Denbok / Provided

Those wishing to see more of Denbok’s work can visit her website, purchase a copy of her book Nowhere to Call Home: Photographs and Stories of the Homeless Volume 1, or visit the exhibit at Newmarket’s Old Town Hall.

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