‘BOOM’ that’s the sound my mind makes when I see something absolutely brilliant, so it was no shock to me when the explosion sounded at the sight of Lee Jeffries emotionally filled black and white snaps. How Jeffries began picturing the underprivileged goes something like this: In 2008 Mr Lee was nothing more than an accountant and an amateur photographer, being particularly fond of running he entered a marathon in London, an event that would change his life.
On the day before the big race, he decided to wonder around the streets with his Canon 5D camera with attached EF70-200mm lens. As he neared Leicester Square, he spotted and aimed his camera at a young homeless woman, huddled in a sleeping bag surrounded by empty chinese food containers- he took the shot. Jeffries recounts what happens next, “She spotted me and started shouting, drawing the attention of passersby, I could have just walked away in an embarrassed state, or I could have gone over and apologized to her.” He chose the latter and crossed the street and sat with the woman.
The eighteen-year-old, whose complexion indicated she was abusing drugs, told Jeffries her saddening story: her parents had died, leaving her without a home, and she now was forced to live on the streets of London. This single moment had a profound ripple effect in Jeffries life, intensifying his focus on the subject matter of his street photography -to the homeless- and defining his approach to capturing pictures.
He didn’t want to exploit these people or steal photographs from them like so many others who’ve seen the homeless as easy pray. Instead, he would connect with them in order to create intimate portraits that reveal an all-to-human story. Jeffries says, “I need to see some kind of emotion in my subjects. I specifically look at people’s eyes—when I see it, I recognize it and feel it—and I repeat the process over and over again.”
Keeping the conversations as informal as possible, Jeffries rarely takes nots as he believes it might raise some suspicion, blocking some of the more natural expressions; so he takes his pictures while talking with them and doing so enables him to freeze those “real emotions” within his subjects with the click of a button. “I’m stepping into their world,” he says. “Everyone else walks by like the homeless are invisible. I’m stepping through the fear, in the hope that people will realize these people are just like me and you.”
Being self-funded Jeffries has used vacation time to travel to Skid Row in Los Angeles three times, as well as Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris and Rome, to continue his project. His style of underexposing a shot then later dodging back light to where he wants it is a direct reference to the religious overtones he felt while photographing the beggars and homeless in Rome. Even after he has had these heavy emotional experiences, it sometimes lingers while he processes his pictures. Jeffries says, “When I’m talking to these people, I can’t then leave that emotion, so when I get back to my computer so emotionally involved, sometimes I will start to cry when processing the image.”
So passionate is he with his photographs that he’s turned his project into a life long mission to help those who are helpless by raising funds, posting to flickr, and entering his work in competitions to bring about awareness. Over the past three years Jeffries has placed third, second and second in an annual Amateur Photographer magazine award contest, and has won separate monthly contests which come with a camera as a reward. Each of the half dozen cameras he’s won has been donated to raise funds for charities, including homeless and disability organizations.
The proceeds from Jeffries’s Blurb book, which features homeless portraits, go to the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles and the photographer allows any charity to use his images free of charge. Jeffries also runs the London and New York marathons to raise money for Shelter, a U.K. housing charity. He’s committed himself at a more personal level too, buying lunch for a man who had lost his fingers and toes to frostbite or taking a woman with a staph infection to the hospital when she was sick. Jeffries estimates he has given thousands of dollars to these individuals, but what he has given them in terms of a sense of dignity and outpouring of concern is immeasurable.
If you want to support this amazing artist go check out his Flickr, and help out by donating some funds to your local charity/homeless shelter!