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Cafe Art's 'My London' shows the city through the eyes of the homeless

Cafe Art in London handed out disposable cameras to people affected by homelessness as part of a contest. The results are striking.
/ Source: TODAY

When we donate to homeless shelters, we tend to go for the basics: food, clothing, blankets. But what about cameras?

Every year since 2012, Café Art, a social enterprise in London that seeks to help the city’s homeless population, hands out disposable cameras to people affected by homelessness as part of a contest. Once participants max out their cameras, they return them to Café Art for a chance to have one or more of their photos featured in "My London," the organization’s annual calendar.

This past July, the organization handed out 100 FujiFilm single-use cameras to 100 homeless people, most of whom were familiar faces to Café Art.

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“We work alongside art groups run by homelessness-sector organizations in London, so by the time we have the handout we know most of the people,” Paul Ryan, director of Café Art, told TODAY.

Cafe Art's 'My London' is a calendar showcasing photos taken by homeless people
'Mr Bond and the Cutty Sark, Greenwich' by ROLCafe Art

The camera distribution took place at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Beforehand, the participants were offered free training by the Royal Photographic Society.

Of the 100 cameras given out, 80 were returned, and more than 2,500 images were developed. Twenty of them were chosen by a selection panel that included representatives from FujiFilm, the magazine Amateur Photographer, the London Photo Festival, Christie’s and the organization Homeless Link.

View all the calendar photos, and the stories behind them, here.

The chosen photos, which vary in tone and feel, are each remarkable in their own way. The image used as the calendar’s cover is called “Cutty Sark Photobomb," submitted by Ray of Light (ROL), which shows a Dalmatian with its mouth wide open as though he’s laughing with an antique ship in the background.

The photo for February, “Bags For Life,” by David Tovey, shows an older man reading a newspaper next to a supermarket cart that is filled with goods.

'Bags for Life, Strand' by David Tovey
'Bags for Life, Strand'David Tovey

“Light at the End,” by Ellen Rostant depicts a leafy tunnel with a patch of sunshine at the end.

'Light at the End, Stratford' by Ellen Rostant
Ellen Rostant

“London Calling,” by XO, graces the month of April, capturing a man with a bright red and white umbrella passing a row of traditional British phone booths. All of the photos were shot outdoors and many of them have a sense of distance or isolation to them, as though the person behind the camera is an outsider looking in.

What's striking about the individual stories behind each photographer is the diversity of the group — people hailing from places like Greece, Hong Kong and Lithuania — and a common thread of illness or health problems that thrust several of them into homelessness.

'London Calling, Lincoln's Inn' by XO
'London Calling, Lincoln's Inn' by XOXO

“The winning photographers edit their own stories in the calendar and all participants in the contest are able to exhibit five photos in the final exhibition in October,” Ryan said. The photos are also being sold individually as rewards to the project’s backers on Kickstarter, with a percentage going to the photographer.

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“The Kickstarter has been amazing as we have had people contact us from all over the world wanting to do similar projects,” said Ryan. In the meantime, Café Art is preparing for an exhibition Oct. 12 to Oct. 18 at Spitalfields E1. "We have been given an entire arts market in London and we are coordinating 12 art groups from all over the city to exhibit art by homeless people and gain work experience when they sell it.”