Arts & Culture: Local Photographer Humanizes the Homeless

Collingwood's Leah denBok is gaining international attention

A local college student is receiving international attention once again for her work humanizing the homeless through photography and personal stories. Leah denBok’s first book capturing the faces of homelessness garnered international attention. Her follow-up book Nowhere to Call Home–Photographs and Stories of People Experiencing Homelessness, Volume Two is as well.

denBok’s book will be published in Italy’s largest daily publication this month

The 18-year-old Collingwoood photographer, along with her father Tim, walk the streets speaking to those faced with homelessness. Tim says they offer each individual $10 if they would like to model for Leah. “Leah snaps portraits and I ask for their life story.”

Leah says she receives some negative feedback from people viewing her work as taking advantage of the homeless,  but she says they donate all of their proceeds and pay the models for their time. “These people are often so grateful to have someone stop and talk to them and show them respect, that I feel we are doing a good thing.”

“These people are often so grateful to have someone stop and talk to them and show them respect, that I feel we are doing a good thing.”

Tim says the only time their work seemed intrusive was when a film crew followed them around for a day. “We had to take a step back and ask them for space.” For Leah the work comes naturally “my mother Sara was rescued from the streets of Calcutta by Mother Teresa as a child, so it’s important for the people I’m photographing and for myself.”

“My mother Sara was rescued from the streets of Calcutta by Mother Teresa as a child.”

Since her first book was released Leah has been travelling the world and expanding her life and work portfolio. Tim says Leah was flown by the Canadian government to the Women of the World (WOW) Festival in Brisbane, Australia. There she spoke, exhibited her photography, and sold copies of her book. She was also one of seven speakers at the She Talks event in Cambridge.

Leah plans to release vol. 3 of Nowhere to Call Home by January. So far volume. one has raised several thousands of dollars for the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre. All of the royalties for vol. 2 will be going to Home Horizon Transitional Centre in Collingwood. Vol.2 was released in late July.

RUSSELL

When we met Russell he had just finished eating a Thanksgiving dinner at the Welcome In Drop-In Centre in Guelph, Ontario. Three times Russell was asked if I could take his photograph. Three times he declined. Several minutes later my dad noticed Russell lying on a bench behind the Centre. Russell looked up at him and said, “Okay, as long as I don’t have to move.”

The conversation Russell and my dad went as follows:
“How long have you been living in Guelph?”
“Too long! I wish I had enough money to get out of here.”
“Where would you like go if you could?”
“Nowhere. It doesn’t make much difference no matter where I go.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t ask my mother. I just fell out and there I was.”
”Are you enjoying the warm weather?”
“Nope!”

At this point Gail Hoekstra, the Centre’s executive director joined us and told my dad that Russell’s back was bothering him. (Hence the reason he was lying down.) Russell, then, told us about a life-threatening accident that had changed everything for him. “I slipped on the mud and came down on my head … That was ten years ago. My back’s broke.”
In an effort to cheer Russell up, Gail turned the subject to happier times when Russell sang karaoke. “He use to sing it every week, all the time,” she said. “What kind of music did you like to sing?”, my dad asked. “Country and Western!”, Russell answered with a note of pride in his voice, and for the briefest of moments cracked a smile.

MISIA

When my dad and I first met Misia (pronounced Me-shaw) in September of 2017 during the city’s Supercrawl event, she was outside of the Booth Centre Men’s Shelter in Hamilton, Ontario. She was busily rummaging through several articles of clothing that were scattered around her on the sidewalk, all the while having a very animated conversation with herself. When asked by my dad if I could photograph her, she politely declined. (I was very disappointed as she has beautiful, emerald-coloured eyes.)

When we were back in Hamilton two months later, we again ran into Misia outside the Centre. Before my dad could say a word to her, she said, “You wanted to take my picture a couple of months ago, didn’t you?”
My dad replied, “Yes, we did.”
Misia then smiled and in a pleasant tone of voice said, “You can do it now if you want.”
Although Misia is a Toronto native, she is of Polish descent. After completing university in 1993, she lived in Poland for several years. She has called Hamilton her home for the past 20 years.
Misia has two children: Daniel, 18, and Christina, 14. However, she has no contact with them. “I haven’t seen them in two years,” she said. “And it’s been an extremely stressful two years for me… I did see them briefly though. Yeah, I did get to see them, um, just in passing. They kind of dropped in unexpectedly, and then popped right back out, literally. Like, it really looked like someone put a blanket sheet over top of them and then scooped them out from under me.”

For the next four minutes, Misia, seemingly without pausing to take a breath, talked about such diverse subjects as: Freud, WWII, traffic congestion, pharmaceutical companies, Morse code, carburetors, and Hitler. (Unfortunately, most of what she said made no sense whatsoever.) The last thing she told us was, “I ended up in an institution and ended up with all kinds of questions and answers that begged the question of why am I there.”

MIKE

We came across Mike on a mild day in late August of 2017 as he was about to go into the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre in Barrie, Ontario for supper. He kindly agreed to delay eating his meal for a few minutes while I photographed him and my dad asked him a few questions.

“Well, it’s a nice day today”, my dad said. “[It’s] a good day folks, eh?”, Mike acknowledged with a chuckle. When asked how long he’d been living in Barrie, Mike replied, “Oh, uh, 24 years. I was born in England. Yeah, South Country [in] Lester. I was just a young kid in those days. I come from a strict family. [I have] good memories [of my time there].”

When my dad asked Mike if he had any family in Barrie, or even Canada, he replied, “Uh, no. I’m just a quiet person. [I] don’t drink alcohol, don’t take pills. Nothing. Alcohol will kill ya, [and] too many have gotten into that these days.”
After a brief period of silence, Mike, with a note of excitement in his voice, and a nod toward Kempenfelt Bay, which is only a couple hundred metres south/east of where we were standing, said, “Snowbirds came across here. Those jets, oh, about two weeks ago. Yeah, [I saw them].” [Mike was referring here to the performance over the Bay, about two months earlier, by the Canadian Forces Snowbirds.}

The conversation then, suddenly, turned to the time when, on September 3, 1989, two Snowbirds collided in midair during a performance at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition. “They crashed in Toronto at the Exhibition. They hit wings”, he said.
Anxious not to miss his lunch, Mike, then, said, “I’m going to have to go”, at which point we said goodbye.

NATHAN

When we met Nathan he was sitting in front of a store on Yonge Street, a mere 30 metres across the road from the massive Eaton Centre, North America’s busiest mall with almost 50 million visitors a year—more than Disneyland and Walt Disney World combined. In stark contrast, Nathan appeared a lonely and forlorn figure. As I stood and watched him, crowds of people filed past him, seemingly oblivious to his existence.

Nathan has lived in Toronto all of his life—all 68 years of it. His mother, who is 85, also lives in Toronto, though his father died a long time ago. He has a sister who also lives in Toronto, though he has no contact with her. Nathan told us that he keeps to himself and doesn’t have a lot of friends—though whether this is by choice or not I do not know. When asked if the people he meets on the street are friendly to him, he replied with a simple, “No.”

When the photo shoot was finished and my dad took out of his pocket a brand new $10 bill to give to Nathan—We pay all of our models!—Nathan immediately began to protest, saying, “I want two fives. I don’t like it new money. I want two fives. I don’t like it new money.” Nathan, it seems, was worried that the money my dad tried to give him was counterfeit. It took my dad ten minutes to find a store that would make change for him.

CHRIS

When we met Chris he was barely holding it together. “He was ran over”, he told my dad. “Pardon me?”, my dad asked him, unsure if he had heard him correctly. “He was ran over”, Chris repeated, his voice trembling with emotion. “And then my girlfriend took the weakest way out. She just couldn’t handle it, so….”, he said, his voice trailing off. “I struggle with it every day.” Chris went on to explain to my dad that almost two years ago to the day, on June 28, 2015, his little boy was struck and killed by a car. Grief struck, his girlfriend then committed suicide.

That was in Winnipeg. He moved to Barrie three weeks ago to start afresh—and to be closer to his brother, who is a Barrie native. “I just needed to get out of Winnipeg”, he explained to my dad. “I couldn’t….”, he said, his voice trailing off again. “You know what I mean.”

Following the deaths of his son and girlfriend Chris’s body began to shut down. “I had to take two years off work to deal with…”, Chris tried to explain, but was unable to finish. “I lost my speech for a year”, he said. “But I’m blessed to have the Salvation Army in my life. They’ve helped me through a lot.” He went on to explain that he has completed a one-and-a-half-year program with the Salvation Army to help him cope with his loss.

When we met Chris he was staying at the Salvation Army’s Barrie Bayside Mission Centre. He was also looking forward to getting back to work as a flat roofer. “I do flat roofs with the rubber strips”, he said. In fact he was meeting someone later that day about a job. “I have an interview today”, he said. “But I always get hired. I’m good at what I do. I just need to get back to work, right.”
When my dad complimented Chris on making the best of things, especially in light of the circumstances, Chris replied, “Thank you! I’m trying man.”