In 2014, Danish photographer Thilde Jensen met two men in upstate New York: Reine and Lost, who lived together under a highway. After Reine and Lost shared their stories with her, she pursued a project documenting people’s experiences of homelessness around the US, including in New Mexico, Las Vegas and New Orleans as well as Syracuse, New York, where it all began.
The four years Jensen poured into the project have come together into a new exhibition, I Am Not Invisible, which is on display at the Martin Parr Foundation as part of the Bristol Photo Festival.
Ethical questions abound when it comes to photographing people affected by poverty or homelessness – it is often a grey area at best and exploitative at worst. Jensen’s photographs may not be easy to digest, yet they also resist sensationalism, instead depicting the realities of homelessness and marginalisation with a humanistic touch.
Her images are accompanied by captions that name people and occasionally quote them, implying a sense of exchange and collaboration that is often absent in work of this nature.
Jensen’s empathetic lens stems from her own experiences of homelessness, which is explored in her debut photo book The Canaries. After emigrating from Denmark to the US, the photographer spent two years living in a tent in the woods, having come up against illness and the ensuing healthcare costs in the US, which her income as a photographer didn’t cover.
“Though I had lived outside myself, the people I encountered in the street were there for reasons other than mine. I wanted the pictures to authentically show the often brutal reality of life in the streets of America. This meant learning a new way of making unposed photographs with my old medium format film camera, simply following and mirroring the people and their unfolding experiences,” Jensen says.
“I spent many hours over weeks and months, gaining the trust of the homeless and understanding their struggles. I listened and I let the pictures come naturally. I tried to work from a place of extreme empathy instead of getting in the way of the people I was with.”
“Most of the homeless people I met had life stories so full of trauma and neglect that I was surprised they had made it this far. An unkind world and a system not designed to help them succeed had deeply scarred many of them. They feel cast out, unwanted, invisible, forgotten. They endure constant harassment from cops, business owners, kids or drunks throwing rocks or lighting them on fire as they slept. Unsheltered, vulnerable to sexual assault and violence. Sleepless nights with drugs and alcohol to dull the pain,” she explains.
Jensen is clearly aware that her photographs don’t need to show all of this to illustrate the damaging effects and frustrating cyclicality of homelessness. “Slowly, your reality stops making sense or becomes too painful to inhabit, and the thin veil that separates you from madness starts to slip.”
I Am Not Invisible is on display at the Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol until December 19; martinparrfoundation.org