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Stories of happiness are often the same, but there are hundreds of thousands of tragic stories. Homeless people might have experienced problems with their marriages, careers, or investments leading them to end up on the streets. Some of them cannot make livings because of their physical or psychiatric conditions, and their families abandoned those. They could also be the ones who are not good at dealing with interpersonal relationships. They would rather minimize their living standards and cut themselves off from society. Are they being exiled, or do they choose to self-exile?

Every photojournalist has met at least some homeless people throughout their career, whether they had attended NGO’s poverty survey press conferences or those referred to us by social workers for news features. To us as photojournalists, they are strangers and photo subjects. Our initial impressions are that they are old, dirty, drug-addicted, difficult to communicate with, or have mental illnesses. Instead, Uncle Hung was different. He was neat and tidy; he kept his living space in an orderly manner, he had a steady job as a janitor. More importantly, he would take the initiative to help others, even strangers. I was attracted to his uniqueness. I started to film Uncle Hung’s life regularly, up to two or three times a week.  

Uncle Hung

After spending more time with Uncle Hung, he started telling me about his past. He once was a gang member and was imprisoned twice. After his second release from prison, his wife kicked him out of their apartment because of his drug addiction. That addiction also ruined Uncle Hung’s working ability. In the end, he lost his job and became homeless.

He was suffering from the final stage of cancer at the time. Sometimes, he would have severe pain that made him unconscious,

In November 2014, Uncle Hung’s health condition declined even more rapidly. When I revisited him the next day, he was not breathing.

Simon Lee

Simon graduated from university with a degree in chemistry. He had a stable job and a good life. Eventually, he felt that his work was tiring and meaningless, and alienated himself from his family. He quit his job and left his family.

It was not easy to build a relationship with Simon since he had never mentioned his past.

So far, we have known each other for more than three years. For a long-term project to run smoothly, it takes time to establish a good relationship with the subject. 

A photographer’s emotional intake can make his photos more appealing. As a narrator, I do not believe there is such a thing as absolute objectivity. James Nachtwey said that he does not have any emotions for the subjects of his photos, but from his work, such as the Rwanda Massacre, you could see his strong emotions shine through. W. Eugene Smith was in his agitated state all the time. But do you have to invest all your emotions into the subject to take good photos? I think the most important thing is to have meaningful communication with them.

In many cases, people experiencing homelessness want to live in their bubbles, ignoring their surroundings and not interacting with each other. But they also have the desire to be cared and to be understood. Loneliness is the common language of all city dwellers, we are not that far from the homeless people.