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A portrait of a Very Big Issue

October 06 2011
Sean and Charlotte, from Paul Wenham-Clarke?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ?¢‚ǨÀúHard Times?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ Sean and Charlotte, from Paul Wenham-Clarke?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s ?¢‚ǨÀúHard Times?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢
 Renowned photographer Paul Wenham-Clarke marks the Big Issue’s 20th anniversary with Hard Times, an award-winning exhibition with homelessness at its heart


Sean and Charlotte are pictured in the back seat of a car, his head resting upon her chest, her arm draped lovingly around his shoulder. Look closer, however, and the scene isn’t quite as romantic as it first appears. Sean and Charlotte are homeless, living out of a Peugeot 205 and hit so hard by sleep deprivation that they struggle to stay awake for the photograph.

This image is one of a series of portraits taken by acclaimed photographer Paul Wenham-Clarke for ‘Hard Times’, a powerful and thought-provoking exhibition marking 20 years of the Big Issue. The show, which ran at Birmingham’s St Martin-in-the-Bullring church until the end of September, had over 100,000 visitors at its London outing and has already received the prestigious Gold Award from the Association of Photographers.

Paul, who has worked in the commercial photography world for 23 years and is a senior lecturer in photography at Arts University College, Bournemouth, was offered the commission following the critical success of ‘When Lives Collide’, his first major issue-based project which was exhibited at the OXO Gallery on London’s South Bank. This controversial collection explored the affects of road traffic collisions upon victims and their families through a series of portraits.

By bringing ‘Hard Times’ to Birmingham, Paul hoped to place homelessness high on the public agenda and alter what is often a negative perception of Big Issue vendors. “I was hoping the images would make the public have a re-think and make them realise that we are all only about two months away from being homeless,” said Paul. “There really are no safety nets. The recession, in particular, has hit a lot of people hard. I think that my photographs show that seemingly ordinary people can end up in quite extraordinary circumstances.”

Kevin is a former kitchen salesman who now lives in a cramped caravan not even as long as his tall frame. He is captured reclining on his tiny bed, the smoke from his cigarette filling the small space. Kevin became homeless after being made redundant in the midst of the global economic crisis and soon found himself in deep financial waters. Said Paul: “He was one of the most charismatic Big Issue vendors I’ve ever met. He had a wit and charm the punters responded to, and sold a copy every few minutes. It was no surprise to hear he had been a salesman in a previous life. He still had the gift of the gab - he flirted with the ladies and joked with the guys.” Economic decline as a root cause for homelessness features heavily in Paul’s work, and if one thing can be learnt from the exhibition, it is just how vulnerable we can be when times change.

The whole project took Paul two years to complete, mainly because he spent a lot of time travelling to Big Issue offices across the country, meeting and speaking to as many vendors as he could. So were his own perceptions changed at all during this time? “Yes, it was a bit of a journey for me because I found out about how the Big Issue works, and about how the vendors are self-employed. I was surprised by all of the ex-service people on the streets. It was shocking to see how so many could end up in a situation where they have no support from the government. I found it hard to believe that this was happening in the UK; I thought it was a country that looked after its citizens.”

Through Paul’s intimate documentary-style images and the stories that accompany them, the fascinating words of Big Issue vendors are brought to life. Said Paul: “I wanted to make sure the vendors I photographed were a true cross-section of people selling the Big Issue, but I didn’t want it to be a great big advert for the magazine - I wanted to make sure the portraits had a realism to them.” It is because of this candid portrayal that Paul is mindful to point out that not all the stories have a happy ending. “The Big Issue manages to help some people and really does change lives, whilst it stops others from reaching the point where they’ve run out of options. For some, however, their lives just stay the same.”

Among the final photographs on show, one in particular remains in the memory long after leaving the ecclesiastical exhibition space. Anna Jones stares boldly into the camera, her dark sunglasses, glitzy top and bright blonde hair giving her a rock star quality. Her assured composure is no accident. “Anna told me she was an ex-model and had travelled across the world, but she got into trouble with drink and drugs and fell into prostitution,” explained Paul. During the height of her modelling career, Anna even worked with royal photographer, Lord Lichfield. “I admit when I first met Anna, I had some doubts about her stories, but as soon as I took out my camera, without even realising it, she started to do slight poses, and I could tell straight away that she had been a model.” Paul was so intrigued he contacted the Lord Lichfield Archive of Photography to ask whether they had any images of Anna in their library. “They even remembered her!” said Paul. “They said that she was very promising at the time.” Anna has now turned her life around and says she is grateful to be alive.

Paul hopes that ‘Hard Times’ will reach out to those that don’t normally buy the Big Issue, and make them think about the hidden lives of Britain’s homeless. And Paul believes he has already got people thinking. “I walked round my own exhibition and had a secret listen into a few conversations,” he confesses. “It was really interesting to hear so many heated debates about the best way to help people at risk.” Thanks to Paul’s powerful portraits, the debate can only get hotter.