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Homeless voices: a lesson from Brazil

Photo by Marco Aurelio Alves Silva, São Paulo, November 2015.

I felt like interrupting the guy in front of me: “wouldn’t this one be better?” I quickly checked myself: it was his choice, his voice. The return of the contest photos to participants, and selection by them for the exhibition, happened on a hot muggy Monday afternoon in a São Paulo homeless day centre called Porto Seguru. Everyone was asked to choose five photos for the exhibition. Despite having some great shots of places, including buildings and of São Paulo’s famous street murals, the guy making the selection was only choosing photos of people. I later realised that some of the other participants chose people over other topics in their photos too and it made me realise the value they placed on their friends. Many of the São Paulo project participants had never used a camera before. Training, six days before, had been clear but brief. We gave out two thirds in the OAF day centre which is based under one of the busiest flyovers in the centre of the Sao Paulo and the remaining cameras at the homeless day centre called Porto Seguru, located in an industrial area to the north (on the map it looked close – but like most places in São Paulo, the drive on jammed motorways took more than an hour).

One of the participants in the Minha Sao Paulo contest with Ronaldo Aguiar from The RPS.

Ronaldo Aguiar, a local member of The Royal Photographic Society (The RPS), gave some advice on how to use the camera. Instructions on topics were were also given: “your family, your friends or just where you like to spend time. Your São Paulo.” It was not possible to give detailed photography training, but like the London contest we hope that the introduction to photography will lead to something more. The goal of The RPS is to reach out to communities with education and I hope that we can continue the developing the project in São Paulo and I hope that one day we will be able to set up a mentoring group in photography like we are setting up in London with The RPS. For now the basic introduction to photography with a single use (disposable) camera was a start. The general idea about the project is to get people to have fun and think carefully about what they photograph, gaining basic photography and communication skills. See a news report about the handout from TV Brasil Other goals include connecting people and communities – both through taking photos and taking to people about them. The basic cameras put everyone on the same level - if anyone loses their camera it won’t be a huge loss as it’s just a disposable. It also helps let people go off by themselves and really make the decision about what they want to take by themselves.

Later when photos are chosen, whether for the calendar by the judging panel and the public vote or the rest of the exhibition by the photographers, the emphasis is on telling their stories. By communicating who they are, even in a short story, the project connects communities and people. By understanding people’s personal stories the wider community can empathise with people who have experienced or are experiencing homelessness. The people telling the stories are empowered in the same way. The contest ran from 3-5 November, with the photos being developed on the 6th, judged on the 7th and the photos for the Photo Wall chosen by participants on the 9th. It was a crazy week running the pilot photography project and, thanks to the help of the São Paulo Human Rights staff at City Hall (the Prefeitura), we managed to fit in four weeks’ work into seven days. The next stage will also be done at record speed as the calendar is designed in London then printed in Brazil in time for its launch on Human Rights Day, 10 December. The calendar will be unveiled at the location of the murder of seven homeless teenagers in the centre of São Paulo in August 2004. The deaths, which were widely rumoured to be by police, are one of the reasons Brazilians began to give a lot more attention to the plight of a previously invisible group – homeless people, specifically those sleeping rough. After the São Paulo murders many homelessness groups have been set up, including the homeless people’s movement. With One Voice At the start of the second week I was in São Paulo I joined a delegation of Streetwise Opera’s With One Voice and People’s Palace Projects people working with the arts and music to empower people affected by homelessness in the UK. The delegation included people from Homeless Link, The Choir With No Name, The Booth Centre in Manchester, Cardboard Citizens, Crisis Skylight and Streetwise Opera. With One Voice was established by Streetwise Opera founder Matt Peacock before the 2012 London Olympics. Set up to show the visibility of homeless people during the Olympics, With One Voice was a partnership of several homelessness organisations that work with singing with people affected by homelessness and they had a hugely successful event in the Royal Opera House. Following the success of the 2012 event they decided to offer their experience to Rio de Janeiro in the lead up to the 2016 Olympics. Café Art was included as the mandate was widened to include the arts. In 2013 With One Voice and Cafe Art were on a Homeless Link working paper, with the other UK arts-based homelessness organisations who went to Brazil, about the value of arts in empowering people affected by homelessness. While the art groups and choirs are run on tiny budgets in Brazil, and homelessness is on a much greater scale than in the UK, we were very aware that austerity in the UK will possibly bring similar challenges to us, not only with rising numbers of homeless people but with cuts to the funding of UK homelessness organisations. One thing that was noticeable in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro was the homeless persons’ movements in both cities, which gave a voice to people sleeping rough. The Brazilian homeless people’s movement can’t be compared to anything we have in the UK, because homeless people here don’t have an official voice like Brazil. It was one of many ideas the UK delegation, partly made up by ex-homeless people, picked up. In both cities not only did the city council include the homeless people's organisations in their meetings with us, but they even let opposition groups voice their opinions during the meetings. The democratic nature of this was refreshing to see. So, as they say: watch this space, there might be a homeless people's movement set up soon giving homeless people what they lack in the UK: a voice. Thank you: The photography project and calendar were created as a pilot project on the invitation of the local São Paulo municipal government, the Prefeitura. It was paid for by the UK organisation Streetwise Opera’s With One Voice who ran it with the People's Palace Projects and who received funding from Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation UK and British Council Brazil. FujiFilm donated 100 single-use cameras and Café Art’s long-term partner in the project, The Royal Photographic Society, provided a local member to help in Sao Paulo. The calendar design is being donated by Carter Wong Design, who also design the annual My London calendar. Proceeds from all sales of the Minha São Paulo calendar will be going to arts projects for people affected by homelessness in São Paulo. The full exhibition, including the Photo Wall with all the photos chosen by the participants, will be on display during the 3rdannual Human Rights Festival in São Paulo in December. See the My London and My São Paulo exhibition for one night only in London (6.30pm to 8.30pm) FREE ENTRY See the Minha São Paulo photographs If you would like to pre-order the 2016 Minha São Paulo calendar, the UK price will be £9.99 plus postage. Please email us with your request and we will send it to you in December. The text will be in Portuguese but we will provide an insert in English.

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