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Spike Aston
Photo: Spike Aston

Photography is often best kept simple. Likewise, the description of photography is, also, best kept simple. So let’s do that.

Disposable is a photography project that puts cameras in the hands of a dozen or so homeless men and women in London, England. Very straightforward. Disposable garners images that have given – in their production – moments to create and reflect, and – in their viewing – moments for reflection upon creative practices toward a more equal society. Right? What use is this post, and what use the participants’ efforts, and what use the program coordination efforts of Adele Watts if we’re not to reflect on the issues of poverty and homelessness in our society?

Disposable began in 2012. Disposable is grassroots. The men and women involved consider themselves a collective.

Watts worked closely with homeless artists over the period of a year and developed a body of original photographs.

“Without a brief, each participant took single-use cameras away, returning them a couple of weeks later to be developed and to look though the work and discuss it together,” explains Watts.

“Photography is a science of seeing. I like to see ordinary things too because they can tell you a lot about where you are if you don’t know. You can discover many beautiful and interesting worlds that don’t seem like worlds without photography,” says participant Spike Aston.

In the past 18 months, Disposable has mounted three exhibitions — at a Central London outreach venue in April 2013, and later at Four Corners Gallery, Bethnal Green in October 2013 and Ziferblat, Shoreditch in August 2014.

Disposable allows us to view homelessness from the rich and insightful perspective of those experiencing it, but does so with refreshing subtlety. This is achieved through a belief in cultivating authorial voice and expression without exception, which is truly at the heart of the project and all those who have brought it to life,” says Claire Hewitt who provides texts for the Disposable newsprint publication. “I was overwhelmed by the ways in which they had each nurtured their own visual languages.”

A collection of photographic works by Bill Wood, R.O.L and Spike Aston, Disposable’s most devoted members — has now been brought together in a 16-page newspaper publication.

The Disposable newsprint publication is available as an insert to the latest issue of Uncertain States a lens-based broadsheet. It is distributed through and available at: Brighton Photo Biennial 2014, V&A London, Tate Britain, Four Corners Gallery, Ikon Gallery & Library of Birmingham, Flowers East, Turner Contemporary, Margate.

Keep in touch with the project via Adele Watts’ website and Twitter, and the Disposable Tumblr.

Bill Wood

Photo: Bill Wood
Bill Wood
Photo: Bill Wood
R.O.L.
Photo: R.O.L.
R.O.L.
Photo: R.O.L.
R.O.L.
Photo: R.O.L.
Spike Aston
Photo: Spike Aston
Spike Aston
Photo: Spike Aston
Spike Aston
Photo: Spike Aston
Disposable Newsprint
Disposable Insert. ​Uncertain States. Open Call. Issue 20

Disposable
Edition of 5000 copies
290mm x 370mm
16 pages printed full colour on 52gsm recycled newsprint. Inserted into Uncertain States Issue 20, a lens-based broadsheet.
Photographic works by Bill Wood, R.O.L & Spike Aston.
Texts by Clare Hewitt & Jenna Roberts.
Edited by Adele Watts.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Andres Serrano has just released Sign Of The Times a new body of work for which he bought signs from the homeless in New York at $20 a pop. Over 200 signs in total.

I’m not sure about the sound track to the video, but Serrano’s words are worth a read on the Creative Time Reports website. He doesn’t breaking any new rhetorical ground but he does make a good case for this work being a timely statement to coincide with the end of Bloomberg’s stint as city mayor. New York has a problem with homelessness.

Just once, Serrano’s words veer dangerously close to over-analysis and sentimentality:

“What struck me about the people who sold me their signs was their willingness to let go of them. It was as if they had little attachment to them even though some signs had been with them for a long time. Of course, they needed the money. Many people would tell me they had made nothing that day. But I also think that those who possess little have less attachment to material things. They know what it’s like to live with less.” [My bolding.]

But, ultimately, he grounds the work where it should be — in an it-is-what-it-is conclusion about art, and in an it-is-an-outrage statement about society:

“Although the homeless are at the bottom of the economic ladder, many Americans are not far from it. They may not be homeless, but they’re poor. Fifty million or more Americans live at or below the poverty line.”

You’ll recognise the name. Serrano brought us the *controversial* Piss Christ and in doing so exposed the small-minded vitriol of the culture wars in eighties America, that set the tone for the rightwing unthink so common today.

Despite their wildly different methodologies, Piss Christ and Sign Of The Times have a lot in common. The former magnifies the cultural differences and the latter magnifies our economic differences. Cultural and economic capital are related. Both works ask audiences about how far they, we, are willing to go to manage perspective and to get out of ones own head. Both artworks create, very efficiently, the parameters to those urgent discussions.

Sign Of The Times is a very simple project. It’s not a subversion of capitalism; in fact barter-and-trade might be one of capitalism’s purest forms!? Regardless, Serrano made small but significant one-off contributions to the lives of hundreds of homeless during the making of the work. Hopefully, the presentation of Sign Of The Times will shape public and political opinion to improve the lot for many more homeless folk?

After spending the last 50 years of his life behind bars, 75 year old Earl Reinhardt is about to be set free. He is completely unprepared and has no money, no destination, and no family or friends to help him when he walks out the prison door. Sarah Bones

After spending the last 50 years of his life behind bars, 75 year old Earl Reinhardt is about to be set free. He is completely unprepared and has no money, no destination, and no family or friends to help him when he walks out the prison door. Sarah Bones

“What happens when a 75 year old who has spent his last 50 years behind bars gets released?” This is the questions Sarah Bones asks in a careful study of Earl. Earl has no plans, no money and no destination. He makes this clear to those in positions to aid his assimilation into society and yet, after he leaves prison, he predictably turns up homeless and seemingly alone.

At an exit interview in Laural Highlands SCI in Somerset, Pennsylvania, Earl tells the prison social workers that he doesn't want to leave and he is confused about where to go and how to survive. Sarah Bones

At an exit interview in Laural Highlands SCI in Somerset, Pennsylvania, Earl tells the prison social workers that he doesn't want to leave and he is confused about where to go and how to survive. Sarah Bones

Bones does an excellent job with the captions pointing out the realities of Earl’s modest life – keeping warm in the library, eating at soup kitchens, avoiding queues at the health center, unable to find work, wearing the same prison jacket – only with his name crossed out. Earl explains over coffee that living homeless is tough and he wishes he was back inside. Bones’ photography is evidence that for a lot of former inmates the common experience after release is homelessness. Being outside the prison walls is to be outside all walls.

Earl thinks that if he keeps a low profile and stays quiet they will forget to release him. Sarah Bones

Earl thinks that if he keeps a low profile and stays quiet they will forget to release him. Sarah Bones

Earl is unable to wrap his head around his imminent reentry into the free world so he shuffles and hides around the prison hoping the prison authorities will forget about him. I think the same denial would strike pensioner who hadn’t walked free since the early 1950s as a young twenty-something.

Still wearing his prison jacket only now with his name crossed out, Earl stands underneath an abandoned storefront roof to stay dry. Sarah Bones.

Still wearing his prison jacket only now with his name crossed out, Earl stands underneath an abandoned storefront roof to stay dry. Sarah Bones.

After Earl’s release Bones searched for him. She found him in his home town a few hours from the prison. He had taken greyhound. For three months, Earl lived on the streets. He fell down some stairs, and thereafter was admitted to Reading hospital. Earl was hospitalised for 8 weeks and then taken into permanent nursing home care. During his three months on the street, Earl often showed his prison ID to people he met. His institutional identity was one of the few things he had, and when he ended in up in permanent nursing care one feels that a return to an institution, without the stresses of life outside, was a positive result for Earl. Maybe.

Earl flashes his prison ID photo card when approached. It is all that he has to show for himself. Sarah Bones

Earl flashes his prison ID photo card when approached. It is all that he has to show for himself. Sarah Bones

There have been several photo essays done about prison release, but often they feature men with a story to define based on their own choices. These men are younger prisoners who usually return to complex communities, daily decisions, and family interaction. Or the inmate is the exonerated after an overturned sentence. Vance Jacobs did a great series covering Alan Crotzer’s story of exoneration after 25 years for a crime he didn’t commit.

Earl’s case seems very different. It doesn’t seem Earl had many choices … or ones that he was aware of. Sarah Bones completed this series in 2002/03. Earl died in July 2005.

Of Bones’ other work, I am particularly struck by three photographs from East Africa which includes two heartwrenching portraits of AIDS sufferers shunned by their families and a top-drawer portrait which deserves an essay in itself. Please view Bones’ other photo essays on Rwandans lives 15 years after the genocide and her Lightstalkers gallery which includes her work for the Sierra Leone Global Action Foundation.

Sarah S. Bones is a self-taught, award-winning, internationally-exhibited photographer. Sarah saved for her first 35mm camera at age 13. She has documented peoples’ stories in Cuba, Guatemala, Kenya, India, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Tanzania. In the Pennsylvania area, she has photographed in prisons, homeless shelters and on political campaigns. Bones tells the stories of men, women, and children who are voiceless and too often ignored by the popular media.

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prisonphotography [at] gmail [dot] com

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