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Radislav, from 'Homeless in COVID May - August 2020' by Iain McLean

1 October 2020

At the beginning of the Covid 19 pandemic, like most people, I found it difficult to make sense of the situation I found myself in. So, with all work gone for the foreseeable future, it felt like a good time to plan out an idea I wanted to pursue.

I had been interested in volunteering for a charity but commercial work and side projects had always taken priority. However, I was fortunate enough to qualify for the Small Business Grant Fund, and that gave me the opportunity to volunteer. I contacted a few charities with a view to recording their response to COVID, and fortunately for me the homeless charity Simon Community Scotland came back with a positive reaction.

I initially did some volunteering in their warehouse, sorting clothes and helping load and unload food deliveries, all the while taking casual portraits and recording the events. We also visited a hotel in Glasgow where the charity were housing up to 80 people without accommodation. I was then given more access; to travel to other services to meet and photograph both staff and clients. It quickly became apparent that the project would have two threads; one focussing on people experiencing homelessness in Glasgow and the surrounding area who had been placed in the hotel and other accommodation; and the other recording the staff, volunteers and day to day activities. I had not worked with people experiencing homelessness before but it was a profound and moving experience. My expectations were probably the same as most people's; namely that I'd be meeting down-at-heel people with substance abuse and/or mental health problems but I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For the portraits I was referred to the work of Stefan Ruiz and his ‘Cholombianos’ project where the model was photographed against a white background. This was perfect as I wanted to remove them from any location or from any pose that would reinforce the stereotype of someone experiencing homelessness, so the plain backdrop was an ideal way to imply a ‘blank canvas’. The portraits were taken in colour with each model contributing to the way they presented themselves, and we made sure everyone received copies of the portraits by way of thanks. The aim was to present the person as being empowered but I also wanted them to look human and dignified. Hands were symbolic of the COVID crisis, with a lot of focus placed on the cleanliness of hands due to the spread of the virus through touch. Hands were also a metaphor for hope and friendliness, reaching out to show the viewer an item of value in their possession or to display a message of hope – something that helped get them through. Some people had absolutely nothing, so drew a message or image on their hand of something they missed or loved, a cherished memory.

Visiting the hotel and services over four months was very demanding. Hearing the stories from everyone was eye opening - sometimes hopeless but more often hopeful. Seeing people with literally nothing was perhaps the saddest part, something I had never thought of and couldn’t really imagine how I would react to. Personally, I am lucky enough to have a few safety nets, but those without really don’t have far to fall when circumstances change for the worst. It’s been a memorable experience meeting all of the people who gave their time and described their lives during our portrait sessions and also meeting all of the superb SCS staff and volunteers.

We hope that the 52 portraits can be used to challenge the common misconception of what a person experiencing homelessness looks like. I’m so glad they had faith in me and hope we have produced a valuable document of extraordinary days.

This diptych shows Radislav from Poland with his hand showing the landscape around his home which he missed. I bumped into him recently in Glasgow and he has now managed to find a job and accommodation.

This project was produced with the help of Simon Community Scotland and more of the work can be seen here: Homeless in Covid

Iain McLean is a freelance photographer based in Glasgow and was previously an imaging specialist with the Herald and Evening Times newspapers. Outwith commercial work he produces self-initiated projects.

See more work by Iain McLean

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