This Photo Series Tells the Stories of Homeless People Through Their Most Essential Items
Interview by Mike O’Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
Created by WNW Members Chris Bosler (an art director) and Simon Dolsten (a writer and copywriter) in collaboration with Urban Pathways and photographer Gabriella Lincoln, Homeless Essentials is a photo documentary that tells the stories of homeless people through their most essential items. The interviews and photographs, captured at a drop-in center and safe haven in Manhattan, tell deeply personal stories of pain, addiction and loss but also of hope and ingenuity.
In our interview below, Chris and Simon discuss the project as a reclamation of what it means for something to be “essential.” They also talk about the importance of setting aside creativity for the sake of creativity in favor of an authenticity that serves the stories of their subjects, and reflect on how they’ll measure the project’s success.
What was the initial inspiration behind Homeless Essentials?
Simon Dolsten: The inspiration came from the way the word “essentials” was being used in the media. Lots of fashion and pop-culture magazines have articles with headlines like “5 Must-Have Summer Essentials” or “10 Essentials X Celebrity Can’t Live Without.” But none of those items are ever essentials. They’re luxuries. So we wanted to reclaim the word by asking people who have very little what they found to be essential.
Chris Bosler: Visually, we were inspired by the overhead photography technique called “knolling,” where objects are laid out symmetrically in 90-degree angles, creating a pleasing look. We noticed that lifestyle and fashion publications used it to display their essentials so we mimicked that style to show the contrast between the magazine essentials and the homeless essentials.
What were some of the challenges and breakthroughs that came with this undertaking?
CB: One challenge was the look and feel of the project. We wanted it to reflect the subject matter and feel authentic to the interviews and stories. After a series of explorations, we settled on a dark, textured look that represented the grittiness of New York City combined with a bold typeface. For the website itself, we wanted to tell a story utilizing an endless scroll to create a sense of continuity. The order of the stories was very intentional. It all needed to come together naturally and feel like one cohesive piece.
SD: Another challenge was deciding what people to feature. We did a lot of interviews and needed to narrow it down to a few. A general theme we were looking for were stories with a positive arc. We wanted to show that despite facing all these hardships, people still had hope. So we spent a lot of time going through the transcripts and selecting six that we thought were the most impactful. We were particularly moved by James’ story. The fact that, while homeless, he received $36,000 after his mother passed, had it stolen 72 hours later and still carries the bank receipt with him everyday was shocking.
Can you share some insights into the behind-the-scenes process of working with your subjects and creating a safe space for them to share these "deeply personal stories of pain, addiction and loss but also of hope and ingenuity"?
CB: Our goal going into the interviews was to listen and be respectful. We wanted to minimize the number of questions and let people speak. We started by just asking them: “What items are most essential to you and why?” After that, everything came naturally. We were surprised by how open people were, revealing their darkest struggles but also their goals and aspirations. It was an incredibly emotional and moving experience.
How did your creative skillset and past experiences specifically come in handy for Homeless Essentials?
CB: I had experience with still photography, designing websites and crafting visual languages from previous jobs and passion projects so that really helped me find the right look and feel for Homeless Essentials. My art direction background was also key in directing the photo shoots.
SD: I had to put some of my copywriting skills aside. With this project, the goal was not to capture the stories creatively, but authentically. I had done a little bit of freelance journalism in the past so that was useful. With the stories, we were careful to never sugarcoat anything. We wanted the rawness and difficulty of homelessness to be apparent.
What makes you proudest of this project so far?
CB: Before the launch, the project was shown to a number of the interviewees. We weren’t quite sure how they would react but it was incredibly rewarding to see that they were moved and happy with it.
What are your hopes for Homeless Essentials going forward?
SD: We hope that people share the project and donate to Urban Pathways. As seen in the interviews, homelessness is a very complex problem. It’s often coupled with substance or physical abuse. We hope people are moved by it and join us in trying to make a difference.
CB: We also want to explore additional mediums to raise awareness. The project is currently digital-only but doing an exhibit could be an interesting way for people to engage with the stories.