Leah Denbok: The teenager photographing Canada’s homeless

A Canadian teenager photographs homeless people in Toronto, inspired by the childhood of her mother.

When Leah Denbok was 12 she bought a used camera from a store she describes as a “local hockshop” – a pawnbroker – in her small Ontario town of Collingwood,

She fell for the medium and began looking for a photography project to channel her energy.

She was inspired by the work of Lee Jeffries, a self-taught British photographer whose work portrayed the homeless.

“I was really drawn to his work,” she says. “And how he could capture their stories just by looking into their eyes,”

Her father suggested she try a similar project. The idea resonated with her because her mother was homeless as a very young child in India.

At the age of three, Denbok’s mother was found wandering the streets of Calcutta and brought to an orphanage run by Mother Theresa. She was adopted at five and came to Canada.

“Being brought up, we always talked about my mom’s story. It opened my eyes to homelessness. The fact that my mom went through it puts it at a more personal level,” Denbok says.

Denbok and her father started the homelessness project in 2014.

She was scared to approach people at first, worried they would refuse to participate.

Instead, she found willing subjects who were open to sharing their stories once they understood the project.

  • A teen’s campaign to prevent suicides
  • Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2017
  • Telling women’s sexual harassment stories

“They’re lonely, they don’t have someone to talk to. It’s surprising when you stop and talk to them how much they open up to you and how much you can learn (from them),” she says.

Denbok also paid them C$10 ($8; £6) for five to 10 minutes of their time.

She has since captured the images of about 200 people who live on the streets of Toronto, and in other Ontario towns.

Forty of those portraits, which include brief biographies of each person, will be published in a new book called Nowhere to Call Home.

The images are all taken against a white or black background Denbok sets up behind her subjects.

Her father records the conversation with the man or woman Denbok is photographing.

“I’ll try to understand the personality of the individual, try to get an image that really shows that to the viewer – an image that really tries to capture that,” she says.

The teenager says she has learned that while each person’s story is unique, there are usually just a handful of issues to lead to people not having a roof over their heads – family catastrophes, addiction, mental illness.

An estimated 450,000 Canadians used an emergency shelter at least once between 2010 – 2014.

About 235,000 people in Canada experienced homelessness in 2016 and there are about 35,000 people are homeless on any given night.

Proceeds from Denbok’s book sales will go to the Barrie Bayside Mission, which provides shelter for the homeless in Barrie, a town between Collingwood and Toronto.

“In society we try to ignore [the homeless] and not see them, to make them invisible,” says the mission’s executive director, Major Doug Lewis, but says Denbok’s project can help educate people about the circumstances of homelessness.