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New Zealand

Through the lens of the homeless

An ingenious project, which has taught thousands of homeless people photography and entrepreneurial skills, is developing worldwide.

A creative Kiwi runs the social enterprise which helps homeless individuals sell their photos, enabling some to afford better accommodation, return to education or buy their own camera.

“Our goal is to teach people new skills but also help the people make money,” says New Zealander Paul Ryan.

He lives in London, England, and is the Director of the Café Art social enterprise and CEO of the MyWorld Creative Projects charity.

In 2012, Paul teamed up with Michael Wong, a Chinese Malaysian who founded Café Art. The pair developed the MyLondon annual photography competition, which has run for most of the past 10 years.

For the competition, 100 people affected by homelessness are each given a single-use Fujifilm QuickSnap film camera to photograph their city over one week.

The focus is on what you love about your city.”


Stunning images have resulted, among them Brixton in shadowy sunlight, a River Thames tidal beach, mobility scooters at Kew Gardens and colourful street entertainers.

Shenan Chandler’s Downpour was taken on a digital camera during the Covid-19 pandemic and was the 2022 MyLondon calendar’s cover image. Photo: courtesy Café Art/MyWorld

All the photos are exhibited at The Corner Hotel, which hosts Café Art. The East End hotel has also commissioned the social enterprise’s weekly photography mentoring group to capture local scenes for its 171 hotel rooms.

For the competition, professional photographers select the top 20 or 25 images for an annual calendar, with public input ensuring it sells well. The winners share prize money plus earn half the sale price of each calendar.

Café Art markets the calendars, greeting cards and photos online, with all card and photo profits going to the photographers.

Rough sleepers become vendors, selling their artistic work in markets and railway stations. Paul sets them up with a bank card reader and mobile phone if they don’t own one.

One of the hardest-working vendors, Richard Fletcher, earns enough to stay at cheap backpacker hostels during the week, rather than at a homeless hostel where he doesn’t get on with everyone.

Unique perspective

Paul says people who are homeless can offer a unique perspective.

For example, an early morning image from outside a cathedral could only have been captured by someone sleeping outdoors at that time.

A professional photographer told Paul a picture of a homeless person who is utterly relaxed in front of the camera could only have been taken by another homeless person.

“Some of the portraits couldn’t be taken by other people.

“You’d get a photo that probably would be hard to get from a professional photographer – up close and personal.”

On the other hand, Paul says, the photos might depict a city the same way as anyone else sees it.

The Royal Photographic Society has been helping MyLondon since 2013 and its volunteers teach digital photography with donated cameras at the weekly mentoring group.

Many homeless organisations and Fujifilm also participate in the creative collaboration.

Karina’s Keep Moving photo was in the 2018 MyLondon calendar. Photo: Photo: courtesy Café Art/MyWorld

MyLondon images often include a photographer’s blurb. Karina took the above shot in Canary Wharf Station on London Underground’s Jubilee line.

Her blurb says she’s been homeless since age 15 but eventually received help and was able to stay in a shelter.

“Sometimes we can get knocked off our path,” Karina says.

“We cannot stay down. We need to keep moving forward. If you feel your physical well-being is down, then keep up your mental well-being.

The battle will not be lost unless you accept defeat. I am grateful for the things around me. I keep everything moving.”


The Café Art website says photography and other art forms can be therapeutic for those who are homeless or marginalised.

“It is also therapeutic in that it acts as an outlet to channel their feelings, frustrations, anger, but also hope and optimism for the future,” the site notes.

As the budding photographers experience encouragement, personal satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment, they might try other activities.

“The more active they are in developing new skills, the quicker they will be on their journey to independence, and integrate back into the community.”

Developing worldwide

Paul and Michael have helped set up similar projects in Brighton, England; Budapest, Hungary; Toronto, Canada; São Paulo, Brazil; New Orleans, USA: Sydney and Perth in Australia and this year, Mumbai in India.

They’ve now formed MyWorld to train yet more organisations around the world to empower homeless people through photography.

Paul says they could partner with charities in New Zealand and that local communities can develop self-sustaining projects with their own focus.

“Everything is adaptable. I can see MyDunedin or MyWellington or MyAuckland.”

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For further information:

Café Art

MyWorld and its international projects

https://dailyencourager.co.nz/through-the-lens-of-the-homeless/ Through the lens of the homeless

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