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An Intimate Look at Homelessness Through the Lenses of Aaron Draper & Mikaël Theimer

Art Scene

An Intimate Look at Homelessness Through the Lenses of Aaron Draper & Mikaël Theimer

Aaron Draper

If you live in a large city, then chances are you’ve had interactions with homeless people. Many of us are guilty of overlooking these individuals – sometimes even going through lengths to avoid them. It’s a dehumanizing yet commonly accepted treatment – ignoring this problem aids us in believing that it simply doesn’t exist. But through efforts by artists like Aaron Draper and Mikaël Theimer, using their talent to shine a light on this growing issue, it is becoming harder to ignore.

Aaron Draper, a photography professor at Chico State University, first began shooting portraits of the homeless as part of his master’s thesis entitled, Underexposed. With influences like author John Steinbeck, Draper explains the inspiration behind his project, “In Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, I was introduced to a philosophy regarding society, about economic disparity and Steinbeck’s efforts to shed light on the problems of the poor in our society. Steinbeck hoped to bring about societal change, just as I hope to enable people to gain a more humane view of the homeless.”

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Draper doesn’t change the appearance of his subjects, in fact he does just the opposite. The features that distinguish his subjects – shabby clothing, dirt on their skin, lines on their faces – become emphasized, “Their hard lives really show on their faces, which to me create beautiful portraits…” Shooting in vivid color and an intimately focused lens, the people in his photographs bring forth a powerful sentiment of vulnerability and pride. The images are imbued with hope, as it’s Draper’s belief that, “When it comes to social activism, you achieve greater public awareness by communicating hope as opposed to hopelessness. Hope sells.”

Homeless Portrait

According to data cited by The National Alliance to End Homelessness, there were 578,424 homeless individuals in the US in 2014. Of those, 177,373 “lived in a place not meant for human habitation such as the street or an abandoned building”; about 50,000 of those 578,424 are homeless veterans.


Homelessness does not discriminate – it can happen to anyone; in Draper’s diverse and expansive portfolio are photographs of people from all different races, ages, and gender. And after the shoots (for which Draper pays his subjects) have been completed, he tries to maintain communication; he has tracked several of his subjects down to give them a copy of their photo once it has been printed.


A similar project is in the works in Canada; photographer Mikaël Theimer began taking pictures of the homeless as part of a project modeled around the well-known photoblog, Humans of New York, by Brandon Stanton. For this groundbreaking series, Stanton approaches strangers on the streets of New York to take their portraits and takes a quote or a story from the individual to accompany the photograph. Since its beginnings in 2010, HONY has exploded in popularity – it now has a best-selling book and a Facebook page with nearly 50 million ‘likes’. In Humans of the Street, Theimer emulates this model to aid his platform to end homelessness on the streets of Montreal.


Printed in black and white and placed with text ranging from a few words to entire histories, Theimer’s images are a stark contrast from the style in which Draper photographs. But in the end their messages are consentient: people without homes are people still. They have names and faces, families and friends, histories and hopes, and they deserve to be seen and heard.