I’ve been a big supporter of The Big Issue and Centrepoint for a while. I’m really encouraged by the work they do in equipping people to make changes for the better.
I wanted to do something that challenged why we respond to some faces rather than others. After I did Skins, I was taken aback by how many people would come up and speak to me just because they recognised my face from TV. They would be very nice, even if some of them wouldn’t necessarily know why they knew me. Some would say: “Did we go to school together?”
I found it strange. There are people out there who really need some attention and care and a few kind words – people who don’t often get those things. I wondered to myself, what’s in a face? What makes us care?
I remember walking with a friend near Camden tube station and my friend saw someone he knew lying on the ground with a sleeping bag. My friend spoke to him for 20 minutes, found out how he was doing, talked about what his options might be. So knowing him, even as a friend of a friend, broke down a barrier. He was a person, not just someone sleeping on the streets.
So that person you walk past is someone’s friend; someone’s brother; someone’s sister. I’ve spoken to some Big Issue vendors about it, and they say being completely ignored by those walking past is the worst thing.
I thought I would try to bring some sense of familiarity to the problems homeless people face. I thought using familiar faces from television – faces out of context, faces that look like they’re in a bad way – might stir something in the viewer because you are looking at someone you have seen before.
The project really got to a lot of the actors I photographed, to imagine being so vulnerable. A few of them started crying. Maybe it reminded them that homelessness is not as far removed from themselves as they may have previously thought.
We look at certain faces and make instant judgements. It’s strange how we blame people for their misfortunes. Some people have had to go through horrible things, things they couldn’t do anything about. So many people end up in difficult situations but they often have a network of family or friends or the resources to pull them through and move on. Some people get a lot of help with second chances. Some don’t.
Sometimes we might fail to recognise how much people are trying; trying to break the cycle of homelessness, doing positive things. I met a Big Issue vendor in Birmingham recently – Kris Dove. He was doing well and had recently got his own flat. He was enthusiastic about the human connection he had made with his regular customers and how much their support had allowed him to do.
It’s difficult for a lot of young people these days: they understand housing problems and homelessness are not so far away. I know people sofa-surfing in London because it’s just not feasible to pay for rent and for their education at the same time, despite working long hours. When young people do suffer tough times, it’s important to give them proper support before some destructive habits and cycles take hold, because self-medication can feel like the only option.
I know the problems of many of The Big Issue vendors out there began when they ran away from home as teenagers. It’s horrible to think what must have being going on at home to make the uncertainty of the streets the preferable option.
I think a lot of people really do care. They just don’t always know how to help. The answers aren’t always easy but we should never simply ignore a problem or judge too quickly. It’s better to acknow-ledge people, however difficult their problems might seem to be. Showing you care is good a first step.
What Makes Us Care? is at St Martin-in-the-Fields Crypt Gallery, WC2 (020 7766 1100), September 18–October 13 (admission free). All profits from prints sold will be split between The Big Issue Foundation and Centrepoint. For more details follow Kathryn Prescott on Twitter or go to kateprescottphotography.com