Interview with photographer Leah Denbok
Today on What On What’s Good with Jovin Tardif, I am here with Photographer Leah Denbok. Leah was recently honoured by the Salvation Army for her spectacular photographs of people experiencing homelessness in ‘Nowhere to Call Home by Leah Denbok with Tim Denbok Volume 1 and Volume 2’. I wanted to explore this story a little further. I reached out to the family and had the pleasure to learn a little more. Please enjoy and share her journey.
1. Can you tell us about your background in photography?
I began taking photographs seven years ago when I was twelve. However, I didn’t think my work was any good, and so I considered quitting. As I had just watched the DVD course ‘Fundamentals of Photography’ by the National Geographic photographer and Fellow, Joel Sartore, my dad decided to set up a consultation between the two of us. Fortunately, Joel really liked my work. So much so, in fact, that he has been my mentor ever since. He encouraged me when I was fourteen to hone in on portraiture, believing that this was where my strength lay.
Shortly afterwards, with Joel’s encouragement, I began photographing people experiencing homelessness. I was influenced to do this, in part, by the story of my mother, Sara, who, at the age of three was homeless herself. She was rescued from the dirty, crowded streets of Kolkata, India, by Mother Teresa, who raised her until she was adopted, at the age of five, by a Stayner, ON, family. Along with my dad, who is my manager and “bodyguard”, I have travelled to cities around the world, such as Toronto, New York, and Brisbane, photographing, and recording the stories of people experiencing homelessness. I take the photographs while my dad records their stories. I do most of the photography while my dad does most of the writing.
2. Can we discuss some of the stories of people experiencing homelessness?
I have found people experiencing homelessness to be, for the most part, very pleasant people. Bereft of possessions and spurned by society, they are, more often than not, humble, unpretentious, and grateful for any act of kindness shown to them. In a dog-eat-dog society that, often, values the traits of self-assertion and power above all else, these traits are in rare supply today. They are also very attractive. A couple of years after my dad and I did a photoshoot at the ‘Welcome In Drop-In Centre’ in Guelph, Carlin Dykstra, a staff member there, emailed my dad saying, “People experiencing homelessness are some of the most wonderful people I have ever met. Too bad most people don’t take the time to get to know them.” I couldn’t agree more. Over the years I have met some truly wonderful people living on the streets. Furthermore, they often have remarkable stories.
Consider, for example, Kimberly, who I met in Brisbane, Australia, where I had been invited to speak, do a book signing, and exhibit my photography at the Women of the World Festival, 2018. She told me that, two years earlier, she and her husband, along with their seven children, had a house of their own. But then their house burned down. Unable to put a roof over the heads of their children, they were taken by Children’s Aid. Kimberly told us that her children were her life and that losing them has been devastating to her. When we met Kimberly she was sleeping under a bridge.
Or consider Dexter, who my dad and I met under the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto. Dexter told us that he did a couple of tours of duty in Iraq before being taken prisoner and tortured. He also told us that, while stationed in Osaka, Japan, his wife, and fifteen-year-old son were struck and killed by a car. And, despite referring to himself as a “dumb donkey”, he speaks thirteen languages.
3. How would you describe your experience at Hope in the City – Toronto (Salvation Army)?
I really enjoyed myself and met a lot of very interesting people. A week earlier, I did a book signing at the Hope in the City – Barrie, that I similarly enjoyed. Over the past couple of years, I’ve done several photoshoots at shelters run by the Salvation Army, and know, first hand, that they do excellent work. As we have similar goals with regard to helping people experiencing homelessness, I hope to work more closely with them in the future.
4. I received copies of both Nowhere to Call Home Volume 1 and Volume 2. I was informed a Volume 3 will be available soon. Can you tell us more about the third edition?
On December 12, Austin Macauley Publishers in NYC is releasing the third book in my series. It is called Nowhere to Call Home—Photographs and Stories of People Experiencing Homelessness. Like volumes one and two, it will consist of forty photographs and stories of people experiencing homelessness. (Interested readers can purchase my books on Amazon) Through these books I am trying to, both, humanize people experiencing homelessness and shine a spotlight on the problem of homelessness. Incidentally, I donate 100% of the profits from the sale of my books to homeless shelters.
5. Just for fun. What do you like to do in your spare time?
To be honest with you, I have almost no spare time these days. As well as my homelessness project, which takes up a lot of my time, I am in my second year of a four-year Bachelor of Photography program at Sheridan College. To make money, I also work at the West Toronto photography group. So, needless to say, I don’t have much spare time. However, when I can, I like to ski at Blue Mountain—which is just a short distance from my hometown of Collingwood. I also like to go to music concerts and hang out with my friends.