Homelessness in Newmarket is invisible, but an 18-year-old photographer determined to humanize those without a home to call their own hopes to change that.
Leah Denbok bought her first camera when she was 12, with money saved from a paper route in her hometown of Collingwood, Ont.
“It was the happiest day of my life, actually,” said Denbok, recalling the purchase of the Canon EOS Rebel T2i at a local hockshop.
The young photographer shot various scenes around town, but wasn’t getting the quality she was striving for. Denbok’s father, Tim, sent some of her photographs to National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore and his advice paved the way forward.
“Joel said, ‘She’s not on her way to becoming a good photographer, she’s on her way to becoming a great photographer’,” Denbok recalled .
Sartore’s mentorship, along with creative support from dad, propelled Denbok to train her lens on a subject close to her heart: the homeless. Her mother, Sara, had been abandoned on the streets of Calcutta when she was three years old. She was brought to an orphanage run by Mother Teresa and was adopted when five.
“There’s one quote from Mother Teresa that inspires me. She said, ‘If you judge people, you have no time to love them’,” Denbok said.
So, how does one gain the trust of the homeless and tell their stories of struggle when it appears all hope may be lost?
“Trust-gaining is the easy part. We are respectful, approach individuals on the street, introduce ourselves, shake hands and explain what we’re doing,” Denbok said, adding she offers her subjects $10 for their participation. “If they’re sitting on the ground, we sit on the ground. Eight out of 10 people we approach say yes. They pour out their whole life story.”
Denbok said she has learned that her subjects just want someone to know their stories for posterity’s sake.
Denbok and her father have traveled widely in the past few years, she photographing and him interviewing the homeless in Canadian and U.S. cities, as well as Brisbane, Australia and closer to home, here in Newmarket. Their endeavour blossomed into her first photography book of high-contrast portraits, Nowhere to Call Home, Photographs & Stories of the Homeless, Volume 1. Additional volumes are in the works.
Every dollar earned from book royalties and the sale of her photographs has been donated to homeless shelters. So far, the Salvation Army - Barrie Bayside Mission Centre has received $22,000, and Newmarket’s Inn From The Cold will receive all proceeds from Denbok’s exhibition at Serpa Galleries in the Old Town Hall.
According to a joint 2016 report by the Regional Municipality of York and United Way Greater Toronto, Understanding the Numbers, 1,103 people experienced homelessness and visited York Region shelters in 2015. And while many factors contribute to homelessness in York Region, such as family/relationship breakdown, mental health issues, substance and domestic abuse, a lack of affordable housing and sufficient income are most often cited as barriers to finding housing.
The exhibition, Leah Denbok: Photographer of the Homeless, runs until Sept. 12 at Serpa Galleries, 460 Botsford St., Old Town Hall, Newmarket. Admission is free, and wheelchair accessible. Hours: Tues. to Fri. 4 to 8 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
To learn more about Denbok, her work and book, click here