Lee has been on the streets for around 10 weeks now and spent Christmas Day on his own on the street …
I was walking around the Haymarket area of Newcastle when I walked past Lee who was sitting huddled in an alcove outside the Metro station.
Lee: Excuse me, do you have any change?
Me: No sorry!
Lee: OK, have a nice day.
I didn’t stop throughout this exchange but when I got around the corner I stopped and thought about the brief scene that had just played out. Now I must confess that "100 Strangers" was in my thoughts from pretty much this point forward but I did give some thought to what I was about to do in order to do it as compassionately as I could. Whether I managed or came across as patronising or exploitative I don’t know, but I hope not.
I walked back and approached Lee, crouched down and explained that I was sorry and that actually I did have some change and that I could spare it. I offered to buy him a drink at which point Lee explained that what he really needed was another £3 to make up the £18 he needs to stay in the Backpackers hostel near Central Station. So I dug out £3 handed it to him and then asked again if he would like a drink, which he accepted. We started walking towards Starbucks and at that point I explained that this might smack of exploitation a bit but I would like to take his photograph and talk to him for a project that I was doing. I explained very clearly that my buying him a drink was in no way dependent on his answer. Lee seemed quite open to the idea and I left it at that – I had already resolved to spend a while talking to Lee if he was willing and having broached the subject of the project up front I was happy to leave it and possibly even not return to it. I just didn’t want to spend time with Lee then surprise him at the end with the request.
I bought a coffee for me and a tea for Lee (he hates coffee) and we sat outside and chatted for quite a long time …
Lee was living with friends when they were burgled and in his words his mates took advantage – I never found out exactly what he meant by that but the upshot is that he went to live with his sister for a bit but when he came home he was met by a pile of letters from the courts and a repossession order had already been passed. He came home one day not long after to find the locks changed – and that was it, Lee was now homeless! As far as I can gather he was under the impression that the rent was being paid but it wasn’t – so my best guess is that the flat was in his name and he thought his friends were paying the rent as they were still living there – but they weren’t. So Lee lost everything and he now has 2 changes of clothes to his name and has only had a roof over his head twice in the last 10 weeks. He mentions that his friends have offered him a bed but he doesn’t like to intrude and quickly feels that he has outstayed his welcome and on the whole he appeared to lack any confidence.
Lee’s upbringing was "normal" but he got in with the wrong crowd and many years ago he had problems with drugs and ended up in jail (I don’t know if that was drug related or not) and his parents disowned him. With no home or address (I don’t think his sister lives locally) and nowhere to go this leaves Lee outside the system, unable to claim benefits, unable to get a job and therefore unable to pay for a roof over his head, but he does say that he is starting to think about accepting his friends’ help and if nothing else having a "care of" address could make all the difference to him and get him back into the system. Lee has an NVQ of some sort and had an apprenticeship as a painter/decorator so perhaps all he needs is a little help to get started again.
I quite bluntly asked Lee what his darkest hour was but regretted it when he recounted the day he took a drug overdose and "died" before being resuscitated. Lee got visibly upset at this point and I decided that my probing had stepped over the line so I recounted a story of my own regarding the fragility of life and we sat quietly for a bit before Lee asked "so what about this project of yours then?". So I explained a bit more about the purpose of the project and dug out my phone to let him have a flick around my strangers to date.
We chatted a bit more then a couple of lads that he knew walked past and he asked them to hold on and he would walk down with them – they didn’t wait though and Lee seemed keen to chase after them. Lee was the one that mentioned his photo at this point and I checked with him that he was sure and then as quickly as I could dug out my camera, slotted the flash on, pointed it upwards with the bounce card out (there was no surface to bounce the flash off) and took a single shot. At this point he stood up shook my hand and said that he hoped the photo came out and I wished him all the best for the future.
I have left a few details out deliberately and a few loose ends exist in my head as the conversation moved on quite quickly at times but the one comment that I vividly remember is Lee stating that “Newcastle has a very dark side”.
I sincerely hope that life takes a turn for the better for Lee – he came across as genuine and whilst his history obviously involves some wrong turns he doesn’t deserve to be where he is now – at least not the Lee that I met anyway.
Please feel free to provide constructive critique on the technical aspects of this photograph.
This picture is #62 in my 100 strangers project. Find out more about the project and see pictures taken by other photographers at the 100 Strangers Flickr Group page