How photography is helping homeless Londoners

Homelessness in England has risen each year since 2010, and the stories behind the individuals affected by it aren’t found in data, or charts, or even on the streets. There are many, many reasons people find themselves on the streets or in hostels; and just as many reasons that we should try and understand them and find ways to help people rediscover who they are and what they’re capable of.

One of the most powerful of these is through creativity, as London-based charity Accumulate knows better than most.

Accumulate was founded by Marice Cumber four years ago, and helps residents in London hostels who for one reason or another have “dropped out the system” to find empowerment through creativity. Most of the people the charity works with are under 30, and the majority are men – not because of gender bias, but simply because there are so many more young men who find themselves homeless than women.

Cumber decided to use her role as director of a local arts festival in Crouch End, north London, to forge links with the North London YMCA hostel in the area and “open up the barriers” between its residents and the many creatives living there. She emailed around, and had a response from a photographer who was soon transforming the YMCA canteen into “a makeshift portraiture studio”.

Hostel residents were invited to take photos of one another using kit provided by Accumulate, and discover an art form in a familiar and safe environment. “What I saw was a really empowering creative situation,” says Cumber. “Everyone takes photos on their phone, but they had the proper kit here. What’s great about photography is that they didn’t have to have been good at art, but it put them in control. They were creating something they could see instantly, and if it was crap they could delete it, or if they liked it could share it. The models were the other people in the hostel, and they liked it as they were centre of attention.

“It made them feel positive they’d created something and other people liked it, and it was really doing something else – it was a very positive way of engaging residents. People just rocked up and wanted to participate.”

This wasn’t just about photography, or even creativity – it was about giving people agency and confidence – and the success of the canteen shoot inspired Cumber and her collaborators to make this a regular thing, organising weekly workshops for hostel residents.

The results of these early experiments were showcased in an exhibition at the YMCA. “When it came to the exhibition, we saw residents who maybe before felt they had no identity, or felt they didn’t belong, became these sort of celebrities for a night,” says Cumber. “They’d produced something that was on the wall and people wanted to talk to them and find out more about them.

“They went from being the underdog to making something amazing. So from one creative activity, all these other positive impacts started to happen.”

Accumulate now works with eight different hostels across London and runs workshops at some of the city’s most celebrated arts institutions, including Tate Modern, The Barbican and Somerset House. The charity also offers the chance for workshop attendees to apply for a scholarship to a course at Ravensbourne College, with three places available this year. Film and photography students from the university also help facilitate the Accumulate workshops.

The benefits for the Ravensbourne students are many: not only do they forge friendships with participants, and gain valuable skills in education, they also see that photography is “not just about being a star photographer its about seeing what creativity can do and how it could change people’s lives,” as Cumber says.

“With the students involved there’s a bit less of a ‘them and us’ thing, or ‘have and have nots’. With the students it’s about young people hanging out as they’re both learning on the project — the students and the residents are both just young people learning about becoming photographers.”

The courses aren’t designed to turn their students into professional photographers; rather they use the activity to encourage creativity, to foster self-worth, to show people that they’re capable of making something great. It’s putting people back into the world and helping them rediscover their place in it. One former attendee, Sam Agesanya, went on to be employed by Accumulate to help deliver the workshops, and has since been accepted onto the prestigious BA animation course at Ravensbourne. Another, Jamila, began taking part in the hostel photography courses when she was just 17, and has since to go on to study childcare, returning to workshops whenever she can; and Dan, who had previously suffered personal difficulties that left him longterm unemployed, is now employed as a digital coach at a homeless hostel thanks to the boost Accumulate had given to his CV.

This year, the Accumulate exhibition is being held at The Guardian’s building in London’s King’s Cross: “Having it there has propelled it onto another level. For the participants to have their work professionally printed, blown up and shown there at such a prestigious location is like another world,” says Cumber.

The beauty of Accumulate’s mission and what its participants achieve isn’t just measurable in the work it produces, or what’s hung on the walls of The Guardian site. It’s about the less tangible products – the more fundamental changes to the individuals who have dedicated themselves to a course despite their own personal troubles and circumstances.

“The real thing is about people feeling more positive about themselves; they feel valued, they have purpose – that creates other skills like self management and discipline,” says Cumber. “It’s not just about making more creative people, but making people more able and move forward. Just doing a 15 week course shows that you’re committed, focused, dedicated and can manage yourself.

“Creativity fills a gap in one’s life – it’s not just about that end objective. It’s just a very positive thing.”

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