Leah Denbok keeps busy. The Canadian portrait photographer is preparing to publish the third volume in her book series, Nowhere to Call Home. In late April, when she had just returned from Brisbane, Australia, having photographed members of the local homeless population, she also appeared at an exhibition of her work, and spoke at the annual Women of the World festival.
And then there’s the business of graduating from high school and preparing for college.
Denbok, 18, took up photography six years ago after purchasing a used SLR at a pawn shop in her hometown of Collingwood, Ontario, about 85 miles north of Toronto.
Photographer Joel Sartore, who directs the National Geographic Photo Ark project, began mentoring her a few years later, after viewing some of her photos.
“I did not really think much of my images at first,” remembered Denbok. “I was going to quit; at least quit considering photography anything more than a hobby. When Joel said (the photographs) were very promising, I decided to continue. Over time, Joel showed me that I was best at portraiture, so I focused on that.”
Denbok also points to the work of British portrait photographer Lee Jeffries who is best known for powerful images of people who are homeless, as a major influence. “My dad showed me Lee Jeffries’ work. I was especially drawn to how he could capture someone’s personality, and I really wanted to do that myself. He came up with the idea that I should photograph people experiencing homelessness. At first I was taken aback, but then I agreed. And that is what I have been doing the last four years.”
Denbok’s father, Tim, serves as her manager and photographic assistant. He approaches homeless individuals, principally in downtown Toronto, and asks if they would like to be photographed.
Models are paid $10 for a session that typically lasts between five and ten minutes. A portable background — usually black — is placed behind the subject and Denbok uses a mounted flash to light them for what will be converted into black-and-white images.
“I specifically do not ask people to pose or smile or anything like that,” she explained. “I just want them to be themselves and express themselves in beautiful ways. If they do something, a small gesture or something that I see that kind of symbolizes them, I will capture that. Often it will turn out in a very nice composition.”
Denbok has been the subject of a Canadian Broadcast Corporation documentary and a feature on the BBC. Much of the media attention has been tied to her young age, but that is arguably a disservice to the work, which reflects a skill and sensitivity of a far more experienced and accomplished photographer. Her photographs are not great photographs for a teenager to have taken; they are great photographs, and a teenager has taken them.
She says many of her subjects tell her that even people who stop long enough to give them a little money rarely make eye contact or offer a smile, and it is precisely that sort of separation from broader humanity that she is attempting to bridge.
“It blows me away that this can actually have impact,” reflected Denbok. “Homelessness is, of course, a huge problem in Canada and the rest of the world. And I believe the first step is to raise awareness of the problem and for people to realize what is actually going on. So knowing that photos can actually make a difference, I see that as a goal for the rest of my life.”
Tim says his daughter has volunteered to benefit underprivileged people for much of her life, and believes her work on the homelessness project is underpinned by the story of her own family.
“Leah’s mother — my wife Sarah — was a young child in Calcutta, India,” Tim said. “She was actually rescued by Mother Teresa. Leah has always been aware of that story, she has a picture of Mother Teresa on her wall. I am sure that story, at least on a subconscious level, influences her.”
Denbok says some of her most satisfying moments in the project come when she meets subjects she has previously photographed.
“Before the book had come out, I was just showing them the photos on the phone, and they were often very excited,” she said.
“But later we ran into a few people who are in the book. We showed them their page and their story and they were just so excited and thanked us for what we were doing. You can just tell, it really made their day.”
“If they are in the book and we run across them again, then we give them a copy of the book,” explained Tim. “That has happened three or four times so far. It is really nice, because they seem to really treasure it.”
In the fall, Denbok will be attending Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario but she is already planning future projects, including portraits of Canadian farmers and children and teenagers living on First Nations’ reserves. Denbok says she is not ready to move away from the homelessness portraits, which began as an art project, but quickly rooted her in social advocacy.
“There are a lot of people that stand out to me,” she said. “You hear their stories, it still bothers me. A lot of the stories are quite horrible, and seeing the situations these people are in, you know they are out on the streets, and it gets very cold here. It is really not easy (for me) to sleep at night, sometimes.”
All the proceeds from her books — available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the Freedom Press website and her professional website, leahdenbok.com — go to designated homeless shelters.