We first interviewed Livingston Armytage after the release of his compelling photographic series, shot on the streets of Sydney, Australia, Homeless: Hidden in Plain Sight that invited us to look into the eyes of people living without housing.
You can read our previous interview with Livingston Amytage to understand the work and the stories, how this came to be and the effort required to capture such emotional human warmth in the beautiful people he met and their own unique stories.
So we are delighted now some months later to reconnect and have the chance to ask some more questions.
Livingston, When we presented your book in a meeting with a local neighbourhood centre one of their staff said:
“This book sparks a conversation to be held in every household.”
Q1. What have been some of your key conversation points around homelessness issues with your friends and family ?
My initial discomfort about engaging with homeless people has certainly resonated with many people, who tell me they continue to feel the same.
They are torn between ignoring the homeless because of concerns that they may spend any donation on alcohol or drugs, and their feelings of compassion for the less fortunate.
This is commonly felt. This has then lead to my sharing that I come to understand it is not ethical for me to make such judgments. These are people with strengths and weaknesses just like me. But more important, they have needs.
So I share that I decided during my own learning journey to suspend judgment, and to reach out as one human being to another. Contact is really important because these people are alone and lonely in the middle of the crowd. Just talking with them is a gift. And human touch; I’ve found it really important for me to physically touch them on the hand, arm, shoulder. It closes the gap.
It shows that I am not shunning them nor am I standing back because I am afraid of being contaminated. And of course, a cup of coffee or some lunch will always be appreciated!
Q2. We understand you have been finding some of the participants to give back to them a copy of their photographs. This must have been incredibly rewarding for you – what was this like the first time you did it ?
I returned to give the book to Scott first, because he was my mentor in rough-sleeping, and also because I found him first. He was surprised, then really delighted. Actually, I would say, he felt proud.
He liked his pictures, and he really liked the idea of starring in a real book. He told me he’d look after it. He examined each page quite closely, and told me about many of the other homeless people whom he recognised. Some have now got a job; a few have now got a place to sleep. But many have disappeared, he doesn’t know where.
Once I’d published the book, I discovered that it was really important for me to return the portraits to their subjects, in order to complete this project. I needed to express and show them my gratitude for trusting me not to demonise or sensationalise their misfortune. I haven’t been able to find many of them, and may never, but it’s my ongoing quest.
Q3 . What were the responses from those photographed when you returned to give them your book?
They have all been pleased, though Danny felt he looked a bit too stern in his portrait. Happily, he gave me one of his rare smiles for this one – and it’s worth waiting for isn’t it!
Here’s Stewart, who was shy about looking into the camera, but happy to smile for me at his inseparable companion Roxanne, who normally growls at strangers but was content to let me stroke her.
Q4. Through your work, what message do you hope to convey to your audience about homelessness and those who experience it?
Reflect on how you are when you notice a homeless person. Do you usually feel a bit uncomfortable, if so, find out why. Are you really too busy to stop? Are you really unable to help, even a little? Imagine for a moment being in their shoes. If this was you – how would you feel being ignore or judged b y everyone rushing pass … ?
Q5. Have you seen any positive changes or impacts resulting from your project in terms of public perception or policy changes surrounding homelessness?
This is a work in progress. It’s not over for me yet, so it’s a bit hard to say. What I can say is that its started another conversation with DharmaCare, and who knows where this may lead …
Q6. What advice would you give to someone who wants to help homeless individuals in their community, but doesn’t know where to start?
It’s really not scary or difficult, at all. Just take a moment. Decide in that moment to stop and reach out. What I normally do is to say ‘Hi, how’s your day going?. I always get a response, and that starts a conversation. Then I get down to their eye-level by sitting down beside them, rather than standing over them looking down. After some general exchanges, I’ll then ask them to tell me their story. Everybody has a story. Often they are terrible or sad. But I just hear and listen. And we have a real conversation, one human being to another. It’s humbling; I’ve learned so much from the homeless. Thank God, I’m so fortunate; this could be me. Some have Phd’s, others have had successful businesses – until they’re not. Almost all have had homes and families sometime in their pasts. But somehow life has knocked them off balance and here I’ve found them, with no safety net, no community except other homeless. Destitute; it’s a devastating prospect. They’re not different to me or you. So, it’s easy: stop, say hi, sit down, reach out and touch them, give them a coffee or lunch. It can change their situation, and also your’s. Then of course you can make a donation to organisations supporting the homeless; they also are always needy.
Thank you to Livingston for taking the time to give us more insight into the book.
You can purchase the fantastically touching Homeless book now in Australia.
Read more about the homeless crisis in Australia and what is being done to solve it, and you can also support Dharma Care’s Emergency accommodation project in the Northern Rivers region.