I have certain ethical problems with the candid photography of homeless people, beggars or those that appear vulnerable or in plight.  The most successful examples, or ones where the ethics become more balanced, are when the photographer has at least engaged with or even maintained a relationship of sorts with the subject. The very best are collaborations, mutual and nurturing, via a sharing of perspectives. The attached photos are an attempt to approach this subject. I do not claim to have nurtured any special relationships with these subjects but at least there was an engagement. A contract of sorts, and a conversation about what the hell I was doing. Knowing I was going to be hit for change a lot in New York and all cities on my route round America. I started thinking early on about the best way to record these encounters photographically. I did not want to photograph beggars in a street-style manner, it just doesn’t hold any currency for me (if you’ll excuse the pun) When we photograph a homeless person do we impose a hierarchy upon them? Do we reveal the social problem or add to it; reinforce the image of the problem and maintain the stereotypes. A person who has written beautifully on this dilemma is my friend Madeleine Corcoran – you should read this piece

I smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and found that in America this is something of a novelty. I was surprised at this. People look suspiciously at your hands as you slip the tobacco into the Rizla paper and insert a little white filter – they start to sniff the air!! Its Virginian tobacco for Chrissakes! Also, the fact that I prefer dark liquorice papers adds further interest to the spectacle. Some people, when bumming a cigarette from me, looked at my tobacco pouch, papers and filters in a disappointed manner and refused the offer of a hand-rolled one (it would seem that beggars can be choosers)

In New York a man who was bumming cigarettes and change approached me. In order to give him a cigarette I would need to roll one for him. He was amenable to this and the process gave us the chance to have a chat. I noticed the guys’ hands; ingrained with the street and (to me) fascinating. On an instinct I asked him to hold the cigarette and let me photograph his hand as he smoked. “You wanna photograph my hand…Why?” I told him I thought his hand was beautiful. He laughed and said no one had told him that before and he guessed a photograph was a fair trade for the cigarette. “Don’t get my face now will you?” he asked. I promised no. He chuckled as I snapped away at his hands.

So that is how I have got into a little series called  ‘Smoking Hands’. They are portraits of a sort, anonymous by necessity, repetitive by nature (there are a lot of beggars out there) apart from the face, the hands will surely tell us a great deal about a person’s life and character. I took to carrying round a pack of filter cigarettes for those that preferred them, but I was happier when the roll-ups were accepted, as time was then allowed for a conversation. Nearly everyone asked me NOT to photograph their face; but they were comfortable with their hands. This made me comfortable in turn and I felt that I had a ‘way in’, a manner in which to engage. Many subjects seemed to enjoy the mini-portrait session; turning their hands and asking if I wanted to have the cigarette lit or not. Was the light good for me? What about the sunlight? Is shade better?

I look forward to adding to this gallery before I give up smoking!!



11 Replies to “SMOKING HANDS”

  1. This is good Steve, you should carry on! Personally I like the ones with hands against torso (1,2,7&8) they generate a bit of rhythm through having limited variation. Also you can read quite a lot from the different torsos (literally, when they have a T-shirt message on). Works well having the mouth just in the frame as in #7.

    1. Thanks Jamie Thanks for your comments
      I am glad you like the mouth, I have got shots of most of the characters with a bit of face but didn’t want to show them as they had expressly asked me not too. I thought the mouth and fag worked well together and also doesn’t reveal the whole face.
      You make some helpful comments. Cheers and hope you are well and thriving. Steve

  2. I really like these Stevie. If I have a preference the ones without any face leave more to the imagination, perhaps even crop 5 and 6, keeps the scale and format consistent too. Catch you soon.

    1. Thanks Petra, I shall see how the crops look. I am trying just the mouth only (when face is included) and that seems to work (with the fag) but will try your suggestion and have a look at two different versions. You are right that it would keep an constant format too. Hope you are well – I return from my travels on the 20th so we could meet up for a drink soon! Love Steve

  3. These photographs are stunningly beautiful. Their hands reveal quite a bit about their lives. I really enjoyed reading your post. I never know how to go about photographing homeless folks. I always want to treat them with dignity and respect. Almost always, I ask them if I can take their photo. I will be traveling to South America next month, and I am not sure how I will go about taking pictures.

    I was once a homeless teenager in San Francisco. I know what it feels like to have people snapping away, like I was part of a circus sideshow. I really appreciate your compassionate point of view.

    1. Thank you for your comment Leah, i appreciate it. As I said in the piece I feel an engagement of some sort is really important. I have a kind of allergy to photographs of vulnerable people that are obviously ‘taken’ (in both senses of the word) You personal history will go a long way in making connections if you should want to make a record of homelessness when you are travelling. I also stayed in a hostel in London as part of a project and found that some of my best experiences and possibly one or two good photographs came out of the honest approach to photographing. I also found in this case that recording an interview to allow the voices of people to be heard reinforced the process. I am still in contact with people form the hostel. The photo graphs and stories were made into an exhibition and formed part of a book. You can see the project here on my blog if you wish. I wish you all the best and would love to see your work when you post _ I shall be following your blog. Steve

      1. Hey Steve,

        Thanks! I appreciate you sending me the link, I will definitely check out the exhibition. The hostel project you worked on very interesting. Yes, I agree. Engagement is important, particularly when photographing folks who are mentally ill. I find it intriguing and lovely that you recorded their voices. I imagine it made the experience much more personal for you, and them. They are astonishing photographs. It the book available to purchase?

        I appreciate the advice. I hope to figure out how to photograph people, while maintaining their dignity and authenticity. From my times on the streets, I feel as though I am able to talk to people easily. I will be volunteering down in South America with a small group of people from all around the world. I am not bringing any expensive cameras with me because I will be traveling in areas with many indigenous people, and don’t want to appear ostentatious.

        Thanks again for the link! I enjoy all of your photographs, and look forward to seeing more of your beautiful work.

      2. Hey Leah, what you are doing sounds great. The exhibition is now over (last year) but the book is available from London College of Communication MA in Photojournalism Department. Patrick Sutherland is the person to contact there – the book my Hostel photo story appears in is called ‘Economy’ and was part of a series of books all on aspects of the Elephant and castle Area in London, one done each year called ‘Economy’, ‘Home’, ‘Community’, I have tried to link to your blog but it says ‘not available at the moment’. Are you in the process of setting up? Any way – I think the taking of an unobtrusive camera is a good idea. A 35mm film camera would be excellent as you wont be able to do much editing of digital files any way. I would definitely conduct interviews in an informal way and a tape recorder (little digital one) is a very useful tool for this. It really helps to write up the story later and to give credit to the people themselves rather than put words into their mouths. Best of luck and please let me know when you begin posting or how I can link to your work. Steve

      3. Steve,

        Thanks for the information regarding your book. I would love to order a copy of it. The idea behind it is intriguing. I work in the field of addiction, and we always talk about community, and the importance of having a sense of place.

        Please try and link to my blog again. Not sure why it wouldn’t let you. I am not the most tech savvy person, but I am pretty sure I can manage this little blog, heh heh.

        I appreciate the advice regarding the camera. I have a 35mm Nokia that I may bring with me. I used it throughout the 90s, and it has served me well. Also, I really like the idea of conducting interviews. I would never want anything to feel forced, or take a photo of someone who doesn’t want their picture taken. One of the reasons why your photographs are so moving is because there is an authenticity to them that is compelling.

        Yes, I will be in touch. I would love to share my work photos with you. Hopefully I will be able to figure out why my blog won’t let people link up to it….

        Warm regards,

        Leah Grace

      4. Hi Leah – I think the problem is that you have misplaced a letter in the spelling of your site title.

        I have found your site after following a spelling correction suggestion through google – your actual URL reads: (‘Villians’ instead of ‘Villains’)

        You blog page itself (embedded displayed text) is displaying the correct spelling but your address doesn’t point to your blog – therefore the confusion.

        I think you should try to change this – go to WordPress blog help:

        Or you can contact them be e mail – I have a feeling it’s quite hard to change the URL once it is set, but thy may be able to help you.

        Good luck Steve

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