Portraits of homelessness: Teen photographer documents life on Canada's streets

Leah Denbok's mother began life as a homeless toddler on the streets of Calcutta, India. Now Leah has published a book of photography she hopes will humanize Canada's homeless.
Photographer Leah Denbok (L) and her portrait of Lucy (R), a woman living on the streets in Toronto. (Leah Denbok)
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For the Denboks of Collingwood, Ontario, homelessness is a family concern.

As a very young child, Sara Denbok was homeless and living on the streets of Kolkata, India.

Sara Denbok was found on the streets of Kolkata, India in the early 1970s. Here she's pictured with her soon-to-be adoptive father, Eldon Bell. (Tim Denbok and family)

When she was three, she was rescued by a police officer who took her to an orphanage run by the Missionaries of Charity, the congregation founded by Mother Teresa.

Two years later, Sara Denbok was adopted by a Canadian couple and brought to live in southern Ontario.

Now her 17-year-old daughter, Leah Denbok, has released her first book of photography. It's called Nowhere To Call Home and it documents the lives of homeless people in several Ontario cities.

Proceeds from the book will go to the Barrie Bayside Mission, which provides shelter for the homeless in Barrie, Ontario.

                          

Capturing a moment 

Leah Denbok tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury that she has been fascinated by photography from an early age.

"I remember, like, realizing the importance of capturing a moment in time. It's not gone, and it's just really an amazing thing how time passes but we can capture these moments and we can hold them forever."

Leah Denbok at work (Adrian Vit/David MacIntosh/CBC)

Leah Denbok bought her first proper camera from a local pawn shop when she was 12 and quickly developed an interest in portraits. That led her to the work of British photographer Lee Jeffries, who has photographed homeless people extensively.  

"I remember how Lee Jeffries was able to capture their story by their eyes and their facial expressions and gestures, and I was very drawn to that," Leah Denbok says.

           

    

Humanizing the homeless 

Leah Denbok says she has known about her mother's past as a homeless toddler in Kolkata for as long as she can remember.

"I remember thinking how scary that must have been," says Leah Denbok. 
Photographer Leah Denbok's portrait of Ronny - a man living in homelessness in downtown Toronto. (Leah Denbok)

"Because when she was found she had, like, gashes in her head and she definitely had been neglected and possibly thrown out of wherever she was."

That empathy informs the way Leah Denbok and her father, Tim Denbok, approach the people she wants to photograph.

"We'll explain the project that I'm doing [and] how I'm trying to humanize people experiencing homelessness."

"We make a point of, like, kneeling down so that we're not looking down or talking down to these individuals," she says. "Quite often the people that pass them on the streets are very disrespectful to them."

Leah Denbok says that because many of their subjects are panhandling, they offer each of them $10 for their time.

           

Lucy

On the cover of Leah Denbok's book is a striking portrait of a young woman named Lucy.

Photographer Leah Denbok's portrait of Lucy - a young woman living in a state homelessness in Toronto. (Leah Denbok)

"She has told us that she loved journaling and short stories and she had dreams of becoming a writer," Leah Denbok says. "However she's been addicted to opioids since she was 14, and it's begun to take over her life."

When asked if she identifies with Lucy, Leah Denbok says she does.

"I always find if harder when the individual is my age," Leah says. "I know how her life could be. She could easily be studying journalism in school instead of being in that situation. It's really sad to see her life coming apart so early on."


For the full interview with Leah Denbok, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.