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“I lost everything because of cancer. I used to make $5,000 per week with my company but I couldn’t work anymore and it dropped to $900 a month with social welfare. So my girlfriend abandoned me, she left with her daughters. They weren’t mine but I’d been raising them for the past 15 years. The youngest was six months old when I entered the family! Today, only the oldest one agrees to see me. But all of this is temporary, I know I’m going to get back to work, I’ve only gotten better since Christmas.” (all photos by Mikaël Theimer, courtesy MKL)

Photographer Mikaël Theimer’s project Humans of the Street chronicles a group often overlooked amid the hustle and bustle of city life: the homeless. Theimer, a member of the photography group Portraits of Montreal, explained over email the logic behind his project, which is modeled after Brandon Stanton’s hugely popular Humans of New York:

With Humans of the Streets we hoped to change the perception people had of homelessness. We tend to see these men and women as societal issues: we see ‘a homeless person’ instead of ‘just a person.’ So we thought we’d humanize the homeless of Montreal, to help people see them under a different light, and entice viewers to get to know them on their own. They’re easy to befriend, and if we all befriended them, they’d feel like they are still a part of this society, and it’d make it easier for them to reintegrate into it.

As Stanton does, Theimer includes quotes from his subjects along with their pictures. The stories drive home how precarious life can be, how homelessness often occurs through no fault of its victims; one man recounts that he ended up on the street after he got cancer and couldn’t earn as much. Mental illness, depression, and suicide attempts caused by childhood abuse are also recurring themes.

The enormous popularity of Humans of New York suggests both that photography engenders empathy and that this responsiveness is increased by the addition of a personal story. But here, Theimer’s decision to insert text, while definitely introducing an element of personal confession, also serves a more important purpose: to deepen sociopolitical context, a choice that’s both appropriate for and necessary to his subject.

“I don’t want you to take a picture with my face on it because I’ve got an 11 year old daughter and I’d rather tell her face to face what happened to me, rather than have her find out on the Internet.”

“I’ve been without revenue, without social assistance, nothing, for 30 months. It was long. They evicted me from my apartment, so I lived in the streets between November 2001 and January 2002. It wasn’t warm. It wasn’t warm. I’ve been receiving social assistance since August 2003, so I can pay for my rent and for my clothes. It’s somewhat less difficult. I’ve got a place to eat, a place to sleep, a place to wash. That’s the hardest part, when you don’t have place to stay, you can’t wash. Even if you have money, you can eat, but you can’t wash. Today my biggest struggle is to stay alive. Pretty much the only struggle I have.”

“I’ve lived in the streets for at least 20 years. My dad kicked me out of the house when I was 15, it didn’t make me a strong kid. Since we were 13 children, I stayed at my brothers’ and sisters’, and at 18 years old I left to live my own life. But in my family, it wasn’t school that mattered; it was alcohol, so of course that made me an alcoholic. One day, I said to myself ‘That’s enough,’ and now I’ve been sober for three and a half years. I found a place to live, and I started making bookmarks. I sell them in front of the Renaud-Bray on Saint-Denis. Since then they’ve been paying for my food, I’m doing good, I’m happy!”

“My street brother and I have been coming here every day for the past 20 years. It’s rare to see two partners as tied up as we are. In spite of all our troubles, it makes life a bit easier. We had an apartment, but we had to leave because the owner wouldn’t fix anything. We were paying $1000 a month and had no electricity. We’ve been sleeping here for the past two months. The month of August was hot, I had a lot of trouble breathing. You know when it gets really hot you hear about old people dying … That’s me, I should be dead. I have it rough, but I hold on anyway.”

“I was suicidal until the age of 18. I did about 20 suicide attempts, and one day I realized life was too beautiful, that I had to stop pressuring myself, thinking about all the war and the famine going on in the world because I am powerless against this.”
“What made you want to kill yourself?”
“The fact that the world can’t realize that we are not the masters of the world, it’s the Earth that’s the master of us, we need to stop destroying it. All the famine in the world. Seeing that a guy driving around with a $ 200,000 car could feed almost all of Mozambique or Burkina Faso just with his car. Seeing the rich insisting on getting richer at the expense of the poor. This is something that will always affect me. I came into this world with huge existential anxiety related to all the violence happening in the world, to the lack of respect people have towards themselves and towards others. My wealth in life is the smiles I encounter, the help I’m able to provide, the help I receive, the people that reach out to me. When I was 13, I was in the street, after my first detox. At 12, I was selling mescaline. I stopped because I was selling it to adults, those adults were selling it back to my mom, and my mom was on another planet. At 8, I already had a lawyer, because I had been abused and mistreated my whole youth. Because of this I left home at 13. But it forged everything I am, and I am proud of what I am today. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, I’m proud to see that other people also think I’m a good person, a nice little fellow that gives smiles. I have to help the people around me: if someone next to me is cold, my shirt becomes twice as valuable because I can use it to warm two people. Nowadays, I listen to my heart. If my heart tells me to do something, even if my head tells me not to, I do it. If your heart tells you to do something, do it, because you’re going to get an extremely enriching experience out of it.”

“She had my dog vaccinated, and tomorrow she’s taking her to get neutered.”
“What got you to help them?”
“First I saw that he’s not a junkie, and that he’s not a drunk. He’s young, his dog is his life, and it’s hard to find a place to stay in the winter with a dog. And it always comes from our families, from our parents: when we’re mistreated we pay the consequences, and when we’re spoiled… My mother was an orphan, she was a designer and she made a lot of money. There were orphanages at the time, and on every occasion, my mother would help. When she was asking her clients for stuff to donate, she’d say ‘Don’t give me rags, that’s what they have.’ So you know, it goes back a long way. Young, young, young, I learned that when you see a smile on a face, whether it’s a child’s or an adult’s, it stays with you.”
“I used to work in the country, in a plastic recycling plant. It shut down overnight, without notice. I had enough money to live there for four months, and then I came back here. I had a place to stay, but I owed the landlord $80 and he wanted to open a case at the Régie du logement. For $80. So I left. I was in the streets for three months, and now I’ve been staying at a friend’s place for a month.”
“Your family can’t help you?”
“My mother sent me away to my dad’s when I was seven. And my dad … let’s say we don’t hang out. His wife always says ‘You can’t come here, you can’t stay here.’ She makes the decisions, she’s the boss. If I still had my job I would’ve stayed in the country, I liked it there. When I was done working I would take a walk in the woods with my dog. I love nature.”

“I was beaten as a child. It can’t be used as an excuse, but they say people’s characters are defined in their childhood. For a child that was beaten, oftentimes their self-esteem, their self-confidence and self-assurance, all of these things take a hit. Afterwards it’s much more difficult for the child to assert himself. I went through five therapies to re-build my self-esteem; that helped me a lot. Today I’m better but I’ve still got some way to go. The other thing is that I’m gay, it’s part of my identity too. Back then when I used to work, I hadn’t realized that. I knew I was different from the others, but I didn’t really understand why. I realized it in therapy, and today I assert it more. But when people found out at my job, it wasn’t the same thing. When you’re in the country, damn do the prejudices come out… Already I had some troubles with self-acceptance; I experienced it as a rejection. That’s when I stopped working.”

h/t My Modern Met

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Julia Friedman

Julia graduated from Barnard with a B.A. in European History, and from NYU with an M.A. in Visual Arts Administration. She works as Senior Curatorial Manager at Madison Square Park Conservancy.