Profile: Leah Den Bok
Canadian teenager Leah Den Bok is turning heads with her powerful images of people experiencing homelessness captured across Canada and the US. We sat down for a chat with the 23-year-old to find out how she got started, and how her photography is raising funds for the most vulnerable.
What sparked your interest in photography?
My interest in photography was gradual, so I can’t pinpoint one moment. I remember, with fondness, a cheap, throwaway camera that my parents bought me when I was about five or six years old. This experience probably planted the initial seed within me to want to be a photographer.
Also, I have an older cousin who is a talented photographer whose work I admired when I was about 11. And so, when I was 12, I used the money I had raised from my newspaper route to buy myself a used Canon EOS Rebel T2i from a local hock shop (pawnbroker).
At ﬁrst, I took pictures of anything and everything, such as cobwebs with raindrops on them, ﬂowers, and my cats. However, I remember that I especially enjoyed taking photos of children.
How did the project of photographing the homeless start?
Shortly after I took up photography, I was going to quit. I didn’t think my work was any good. But my dad saw my potential and arranged an online consultation between me and Joel Sartore, the well-known National Geographic photographer and Fellow after I had previously watched his DVD course ‘Fundamentals of Photography.’
Joel encouraged me to continue and has been my mentor ever since. When I was about 15, Joel told me that, from his experience, all successful photographers focus on one genre or another and that, in his opinion, my strength lay in portraiture.
At ﬁrst, I began photographing seniors in nursing homes. However, because I had to get written permission from the children of these individuals, this wasn’t very practical. At this time, my dad stumbled upon the work of the British photographer Lee Jeffries, who photographs people experiencing homelessness and suggested I do the same. A week later, with my dad at my side, I was photographing these people in nearby Toronto. That was eight years ago.
Why is it important to you?
Admittedly, I ﬁrst began photographing people experiencing homelessness for purely artistic reasons. However, as I got to know them and heard their stories, my empathy for them grew.
Now I want to help them. My two goals are to both humanise them and shine a spotlight on their plight. It’s a shame that, although people experiencing homelessness are often wonderful people with fascinating stories to tell, most people ignore them. They turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to them. I am trying to rectify that problem.
This work is also important to me because my mother was once homeless as a young child of three in Kolkata, India. As the front-page story of the Toronto Star stated in 1997, she was ‘Saved—By Mother Teresa.’ After being raised by Mother Teresa in Nirmala Shishu Bhavan, her orphanage in Kolkata, a family from Ontario, Canada, adopted her.
Mother Teresa, who spent her whole life helping the people she called “the poorest of the poor,” is now, understandably, one of my heroes. I have taken her saying, "If we judge people, we have no time to love them,” as the motto for my mission.
What do you look for in a subject?
I look for individuals whose faces tell a story. Because of this, I don’t photograph every person experiencing homelessness whom I encounter on the street. Some people are surprised when I say this, but I am an artist ﬁrst and a homeless advocate second.
I once did a photo shoot at a shelter and asked its director not to tell anyone I was coming. Unfortunately, the word got out. As a result, when I got there, everyone was showered, well-groomed, and dressed in their best clothes. None of the photos were usable.
Whenever possible, I prefer photographing people experiencing homelessness in their natural environment where they are most comfortable. However, sometimes, I ask them to move if the lighting isn’t desirable.
I don’t want them to pose but to be themselves. It helps that while I photograph them, my dad, or, lately, my partner Alejandro, asks them questions. This allows them to relax and not ﬁxate on the camera, even though I ask them to look at it.
How do you approach them?
For most of the eight years that I’ve been photographing people experiencing homelessness, my dad has been the one to do this. However, lately—because of all the travelling I’ve been doing—this task has fallen upon me or my partner Alejandro.
Once we come across someone I want to photograph, we will approach them and, after introducing the two of us and explaining my project to them, ask them if I could photograph them and ask a few questions. Usually, they say yes, although about 20% of the time, they say no.
Can you talk about your image capture/editing techniques?
When capturing images, I ﬁrst introduce myself and the project to the individual. If they are interested in being part of the project, we ﬁnd a suitable spot or set up a backdrop where they can sit comfortably.
While whoever is helping me talks to the person and gets to know them better, I photograph them continuously to capture natural expressions.
For the images that make it to the book, my father and I go through the pictures and select the ones that best showcase the individual's personality and story.
We then choose one image to be edited in Photoshop. During post-processing, I make the background entirely black, turn the image black and white, and enhance the shadows and highlights to bring out the best in the image.
What gear do you use?
My gear has evolved over the years. I started with a used Canon T2i (550D) with a kit lens and shot my ﬁrst book. As I gained more experience, I upgraded to a Sony A7R III with a 24-70mm G master lens. This has improved my shooting capabilities and the quality of my images.
In terms of lighting, I started with natural light and then used a speedlight with a softbox and grid for a few years. Now, I am back to using natural lighting. For the backdrop, I tape a black fabric to a wall with some duct tape.
What are some of the challenges with your project?
For the ﬁrst couple of years that I took pictures of people experiencing homelessness, I was frequently criticized on social media for exploiting this population for my gain—even though I donated 100% of the proﬁts from the sale of my books and photographs to homeless shelters and pay my subjects $10 CAD. As I was only a teenager then, this was quite upsetting.
When I talked with Joel (my mentor) about the problem, he said, “There will always be haters,” and advised me to ignore them. Interestingly, I rarely receive such comments anymore.
Just recently, one of Canada’s leading photojournalists wrote of my work, “The world is replete of dilettante photographers producing slavish, hackneyed, formulaic images.
These images are demonstrably not in that category. Quite the opposite. Leah’s work shows visual literacy but also integration, compassion and respect for people given the intimacy of the photographs.”
I’ve also been told my work isn’t very saleable. Recently, while in NYC, a friend approached a gallery owner about being my agent. Although she was very enthusiastic about my work—even commenting that the media attention I have received is unprecedented for someone my age—she said she couldn’t represent me because my work is a “hard sell.”
Another art dealer, this time in Toronto, also said he couldn’t represent me for similar reasons.
Why black and white?
From the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, I learned the importance of communicating emotion through the subject’s eyes, facial expressions, and hand gestures. I don’t want anything (e.g., colour, background clutter, etc.) to distract from this.
To eliminate this possibility, I prefer to photograph in black and white and use a black and, sometimes, white backdrop. I think stripping my photographs of colour and employing chiaroscuro is also the best way to capture street life's harsh, gritty reality.
What advice would you have for people who want to take images like yours?
I believe in Gladstone’s 10,000-hour rule that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill, whether it be photography, piano playing, or chess. So, anyone wanting to achieve their full potential as a photographer should expect to put their nose to the grindstone for several years.
Also, if they decide to photograph a vulnerable segment of society, as I am doing, they need to make sure their heart is in the right place and avoid even the appearance of exploiting these people. They should still expect criticism. But at least they will know these attacks are unjustiﬁed.
What’s your most memorable photo?
I’m not sure if I could pick just one. There are several. However, one such image is Homeless Man & Dog, which I took during my ﬁrst trip to NYC in 2017. I wasn’t happy with any of the photos I had taken during my photo shoot of the two. They were all too posed.
However, as we walked away, my dad—or, perhaps, my mother—glanced back and saw the man swoop his dog up in a loving embrace. Upon seeing this, I immediately ran around and snapped what has become, by far, my best-selling photo. ❂