I had already been photographing the wet shelter in the crypt of St Botolph’s church for a year or so when I came across the ad hoc shelter set up by Crisis at Christmas in a disused Lambeth church in December 1977. Like most of my work I was documenting the event for its own sake. I didn’t have and didn’t want a client. That was the way I mostly worked. It was important that the event itself dictated what I shot. A client’s brief would have been an unwelcome constraint.
I’d been attracted to photographing the St Botolph’s shelter by the uncompromising welcome it offered to absolutely anyone in need on their own terms. There was no judgementalism and no condemnation of the heavy drinking, drug using and often violent lifestyle of those who would stop by to warm themselves, find companionship and get something to eat. Crisis in those days embraced the same ethos and its short term shelter covered the holiday period when other refuges for such people were mostly closed.
I found many homeless and lost people at Crisis who I already knew from St Botolphs’ and that made the work easier. It was crowded, often threatening and violent, often tearful and desperate – chaotic, unregulated and unexpectedly inspirational in its atmosphere of mutual acceptance and support.
Food, clothes and games were donated, helpers organised themselves. Random people just appeared, cleaned, cooked and comforted before quietly moving on. Medics would just stop by for a few hours, do what they could and return to their normal work. Chefs would arrive with car loads of food, help to cook and then return to their expensive restaurants unbidden, unpaid, unthanked. Cars and vans would turn up, unload food or games or clothes. People would just appear, spend a few hours cleaning and then disappear.
I was spending most of my time there, listening and befriending as much as photographing. When I got home I’d process the film and make little 3 × 2 inch prints which I’d give away the next day. Bigger prints got screwed up in pockets, small ones lasted much better. I was surprised at how much these prints were valued. People were constantly asking me to photograph them with their friends or with the workers and would give me a hard time if I failed to have a print ready the following morning. It was technically difficult, very dark and crowded. Mostly I was shooting wide open at an eighth on Recording Film pushed to its limit in diluted American Acufine.
I covered three consecutive years of Crisis but then the organisation became more regulated, the need for proper toilets and other facilities led to the shelters being moved into more modern empty office or warehouse buildings. Drink and drugs were no longer tolerated and the organic, self generating, self regulating nature of the shelter disappeared. I lost interest.
David Hoffman has worked independently specialising in social issues since the mid 1970s. He is driven by documenting the increasingly overt control that the state the exerts on our lives. Racial and social conflict, policing, homelessness, drugs, poverty and social exclusion, plus the inevitable and sometimes violent outbreaks of connected protest make up most of his work.
Editorial photography is a beleaguered profession facing challenges on many fronts, notably around press freedom and policing, copyright and intellectual property. As a founding member of EPUK, the NUJ London Photographers’ Branch and Photo-Forum London, and vice chairman of the British Photographic Council, David is now working on the frontline with others.
Engaging with regulatory bodies, Collecting Societies, the UK Copyright Hub and PLUS in the USA as well as commercial organisations enforcing copyright, is the best way he can see to achieving a sustainable professional photography ecology and the copyright ecosphere of the future.
See more work by David Hoffman