Black and white photo of tattooed man embracing dog


Leah Denbok’s photos are worth 1,000 words about homelessness

The Collingwood, Ont. teen photographs people experiencing homelessness to humanizing effect

Leah Denbok may only be 18, but she’s already changing how people around the world perceive homelessness. Inspired by the work of British photographer Lee Jeffries and accompanied by her father, Tim, the Collingwood, Ont., teen started taking photos of people living on Toronto’s streets. “My goal is to humanize people experiencing homelessness, because so often they’re seen as subhuman individuals that we shouldn’t interact with, or talk to or even look at,” she says.

This year, Denbok launched her first exhibit, Leah Denbok: Photographer of the Homeless, at Newmarket’s Old Town Hall. It’s a follow-up to her 2017 book, Nowhere to Call Home: Photographs and Stories of the Homeless (FriesenPress), which features 40 photographs and stories of people experiencing homelessness in North America, (all proceeds go to the Salvation Army, Barrie Bayside Mission Centre). She plans to publish three more volumes in the future to give readers a full sense of what people struggling with homelessness are facing.

“People say my photos humanize these individuals, but I find that just the photographs still leave room for judgement,” Denbok says. “I think it’s really important to have stories with them because then there’s no room to judge.”

Here, Denbok shares the stories behind some of her most powerful photos.

Black and white photo of a man with dark hair pointing at his head

“He wanted to go to school his whole life but was never able to”

“This is Carlos. I think about his story often. We photographed him in Kitchener, Ont., about a month ago and he was so sweet. His English wasn’t the best, but he told us he comes from a small, scary village in El Salvador called El Catón Del Carmen. After 6 p.m., citizens can’t go outside because they could be killed—soldiers come to the village and beat people with their guns. Sometimes Carlos, his little brother and mother would hide from the soldiers in the river overnight. He thinks he was the only one in his family who managed to escape and presumes the rest of his relatives are dead.

Throughout his childhood, Carlos was sexually abused by a male relative. Before him, no one else had confided in us about sexual assault, but since then, we’ve had other people—other men—confide in us as well. It’s awful to think about how horrific his childhood has been, constantly worrying about his life while also dealing with abuse. Right when we were done the interview he asked if I was in school and I told him I was starting college soon. He said, ‘With an education, you can do anything.’ He told me he wanted to go to school his whole life but was never able to. He cared enough to encourage me to make the most of my education and to really think about how privileged I am to be educated.”

Black and white photos of a woman in a white shirt next to a man with white beard and hoodie

“What happened to Kimberly could really happen to anybody”

“My dad and I met a young woman named Kimberly in Australia. She lived with her husband and their seven children until they had a house fire that burnt their home to the ground. Child protective services took all of their kids because [Kimberly and her husband] didn’t have shelter for them. The couple has been homeless ever since. They live under a bridge.

Kimberly said it’s been very hard for her because her children were her life, and losing them has been horrible. Her goal is to immediately find a job and a place to live but unfortunately, she can’t get a job because all her identification was lost in the fire.

How can we say that Kimberly has chosen to be on the street or that she’s lazy? What happened to her could really happen to anybody—it’s just a matter of circumstance.”

“Pops sleeps on that same bench every night”

“We met Pops, a sweet, grandfatherly figure, in Manhattan, sitting on a park bench outside of a women’s shelter. We noticed that he had a difficult time walking and while we spoke to him, he broke into many coughing fits—some so bad we didn’t know if we’d be able to continue our conversation. We felt awful not being able to help him more. During the photo shoot, a homeless woman came up and told us that Pops sleeps on that same bench every night.

Pops doesn’t have much family around, which has been hard for him. He wants to see his son, especially as he gets older, but he and his son have lost contact and his ex-wife has moved to another state.

My dad and I mentioned that we wanted to see a show while we were in New York and Pops reminisced about his past, revealing that his father used to work for a theatre company and would let him watch all the shows as a child.”

Black and white photos of a man wearing a padlock earing and photographer Leah Denbok

“I get the sense that he never fully recovered”

“We met Dexter in a tent city under the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Dexter referred to himself as a ‘dumb donkey’ but he speaks more than 13 languages—eight or nine of which he spoke during our photoshoot. He told us he’d done three tours in Iraq, and during one of his tours he was taken as a prisoner of war for six months. His body is covered in scars because he was tortured.

Then he told us another tragic story of his life before he ended up on the street. He was living in Japan with his wife and 15-year-old son. His wife needed to go for a medical exam, and Dexter said he could’ve taken the day off work to drive her, but didn’t. Instead she took the subway with their son. His wife and son, along with eight others, were hit and killed by a drunk driver. I get the sense that he never fully recovered from it.

When my dad and I approached Dexter, we had pre-judgements: maybe he’s dangerous, maybe he’s a drug addict. But it goes to show, we had no reason to be scared. He even told us how dangerous the area could be and offered to escort us out so we were safe. You see this guy under a bridge, covered in tattoos, and there are so many bad things you could think about him. But you have no clue what he—or others—have been through.”

Denbok’s goal of humanizing people experiencing homelessness is working. “Since day one, we’ve been getting emails and messages from people around the world telling me that I’ve changed their perception of homelessness, telling me that they can no longer walk by someone on the street without thinking that they have a story too,” she says. “I think the best part has been the feedback, [proof] that we really are changing the general public’s perception of homelessness. I get proof of that every single day.”

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