A question I get a lot but lets tackle the one issue most talk to me about the why.
The Morality Of It
This is where a lot of people struggle and I did myself, for a long while I used to simply watch the homeless going about their business but doing little. Then I began to interact, at the end of the day they are no different to me, all that has happened is that somewhere something went wrong. When I spoke to many of them I began to realise that so many had stories to tell but very few if any would give them the time of the day to listen.
So I had to question the morality of it and the morality of myself and don't get me wrong it was not an easy resolution to come to. But someone needs to document these people, someone needs to show they are as human as you or me, just because they have no home, sleep on the streets, ask for money does not give them a lower standing in our species nor does it give those that walk blindly by the right to feel they are superior.
So I talk to them, I spend time with them, if they are sat on the pavement I sit with them, I help with anything I can. I show them I am no different to them, shaking a dirty hand does not bother me, its only dirt, the smell of someone who has not been able to wash does not make me adverse to them, it only saddens me.
The morality is, it has to be done, it has to be shown, we have to come to terms that just maybe we are not as civillised as we think we are. I will not allow these people to be forgotten, its as simple as that.
Its the first thing you have to think of, your own safety, do not ever put yourself in a situation you cannot get out of. I have spent a lot of time in my life simply people watching, I have spent time with the homeless too. You get to know when its OK to approach someone but if you are unsure watch from a distance. If there is a lot of erratic behaviour then you have to be aware there might be more going on than your realise. Simply if you are not sure then don't.
Smile, it can open most minds if you simply smile at someone, its disarming and although they may still be wary of you the first contact of a smile will start the ice breaking.
Say Hi, how are you? and they will respond, if they are sat low such as on the ground then get low yourself, hold out your hand and introduce yourself. I have never had anyone refuse to shake my hand yet, its human contact its something they miss and its such an easy gift to give to them.
Don't have your camera in full view, that will make overly cautious and maybe unresponsive, but don't try and completely cover it up as they may have the same effect. Be casual about the fact you even have it.
Don't jump right in and ask for the image, to me that is immoral, chat with them, ask their name, ask them why they are on the streets and how long they have been on the streets for.
Ask what you can do to help, do they need something warm to eat or help finding a hostel, (yes I have done this a few times). Depending on their answer as to why they are on the streets be wary about the offer of money, if its drink and drugs go down the route of warm food and a drink but at the end of the day who are we to say they should not be numbed from what they are living through.
You cant just ask, you have to have a reason as I will guarantee they will ask you why so you need to have an answer. I have people ask me if I am the police, a weirdo and more, I explain that I think its morally wrong that people in this day and age are living on the streets. I tell them I use their portraits and their stories to make those that live in ivory towers realise this is still happening. They want people to know what they are having to live through, they want them to know they don't want to be on the streets but they just cant seem to get off them.
Do make sure your camera is set up before you even approach them, nothing will frustrate them more if you start mucking about with it too much in full view of the public.
I personally ask them to look at me, that way when you the viewer see their portrait you can see them, the way I see them.
Once you have taken the portrait don't just say thanks get up and go, once again that's morally wrong, this person has just shared part of their lives with you, as stated before a lot of time they miss human contact, give them that and sit and spend some time with them. I have sat and eaten hot dogs with them, I have laughed when some go on to tell me jokes or some of the things they have gotten up to. I have read a book with a very learned well spoken gentleman, I have gleaned more from them than I did any teacher I ever met.
Ask if they would like a copy of the image, some will, most won't, they don't really want to be reminded of this time in their life and who could blame them?
Before you go always thank them, always shake their hands and wish them well, I never say I hope to see you again, I don't want to see anyone like this again, I hope if I ever do see them again they are sorted but I can only hope.
So, first and foremost when you go off in your quest to photograph the homeless you are not dealing with subjects, you are dealing with human beings, get this right and it will show in what you want to show the world.