Paul’s Pics Prompt Deeper Look at Homeless

'Lost' [Detail] 2021, Allan Paul Freeman

“They’re both homeless.”

That is the obvious common thread linking the two images Townsville photographer Paul Freeman entered in this year’s Percival Photographic Portraiture Prize. However, Paul hopes his portraits of Jonathan and Peter will encourage exhibition-goers to look deeper than the ‘homeless’ label.

Paul met his two subjects, Jonathan and Peter, going about his day-to-day in the CBD. Over time, he has struck up conversations, built rapport and earned the trust to photograph the two men.

Peter, Deep in Thought
Percival Photographic Portrait Prize 2022 Finalist: Deep in Thought (2021), Allan Paul Freeman

“Peter is two or three years older than me and he lives in the streets by choice,” says Paul.

“Every day he goes down to the homeless hub, showers and washes his clothes. He spends most of his day up at the library reading or getting online. He keeps himself out of mischief.

“Peter’s had a varied life. He has some mental health issues and he’s distanced from his family, which does upset him at times.

“While taking his photo, I asked him a question about his life and his hand went up to his head. It’s a common gesture but the memory was clearly deep and mixed up in things, you could see he was working hard to drag it out.” 

Jonathan, Lost
Percival Photographic Portrait Prize 2022 Finalist: Lost (2021), Allan Paul Freeman

Both the figures in Jonathan’s portrait are of him.

Paul snapped the image of Jonathan hunched over the first time he saw him. It took some time before Jonathan would allow him to take the second shot.

“He’s just lost between two cultures,” Paul says.

“He’s a little more aloof than Peter. But every time he sees me, he says g’day and asks me how I’m going. He never ignores me and I’ve seen him in some pretty bad states.

“It’s a passing friendship, but we understand one another.”

Paul’s process

Paul is drawn to Townsville’s homeless by a blend of curiosity, humanity and shared experience.

“I spent a little bit of time on the street many years ago. I can empathise with them,” he says.

“I want to know their stories. Often people will see the camera in my hand and they’ll start talking to me. I find people open up as long as you listen to them. Some of the tales they tell you can sound a bit far-fetched, but they’re all in times of need and trouble – and there’s a growing number.

Jonathan and Peter’s images are the eighth and ninth portraits that have earned Paul a Finalist nod in The Percivals. He says the Competition allows his work to be seen by a much broader audience and gives him the chance to challenge viewers’ perspectives.

“My portraits always ask the question ‘What is going on?’ and to me that’s what art should be doing. It should make us look twice and ask questions about it.

“You have to slow down, engage with people.”

“I do a lot of music and theatre stuff and I love photographing actors because you only have to say ‘Give us your worst misery face’ and bang! it’s there. Portraits are more challenging.

“The secret for me is to always be soft on the approach. Once the ice is broken and we start talking about our lives, we find similarities and can build some empathy, then people relax more and their character comes out further.

“It’s something I don’t think you can teach. You’ve got to find it within yourself and just be aware of your surroundings and know when to press that button.

“You have to slow down, engage with people.”

The Percivals are on exhibition at Perc Tucker Gallery until 3 July 2022.
Voting in the People’s Choice Award is open until 30 June 2022.

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