Newcastle photographer of homeless people sees what others don't

Life on the street: Terry Pollock, who photographer Jonathan Carroll said was no longer homeless. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll
Life on the street: Terry Pollock, who photographer Jonathan Carroll said was no longer homeless. Pictures: Jonathan Carroll

To many people, the homeless are invisible.

To photographer Jonathan Carroll, they are always in sight. He’s a professional news photographer for the Newcastle Herald, travelling around the region and shooting hundreds of portraits every year. (He’s also an award winner – this year alone he is a finalist in the Kennedy Awards for Excellence in Journalism and the NewsMediaWorks Awards for Journalistic Excellence in the South Pacific.)

He can rattle off the names of homeless people and where they usually hang out, and in many cases, their life story, too.

Next week Carroll will exhibit 14 portraits of his portraits of the Hunter’s homeless or street people. He will also show four of his sports images in a show called, Look Twice, which contains images from seven photographers from around the region.

The show, curated by Jamie Gilmore, of Studio DC 3 in Hamilton, features the work of Carroll, Gilmore, David Oliver, Easton Chang, Kylie Foley, Kirsten Woodforth and Doug Coleman. Look Twice will take patrons on a journey from 150-year old historic photographic techniques to state of the art commercial imagery developed to showcase the world’s biggest luxury brands. It includes a salute to traditional landscapes, fine art images, portraiture, nature, commercial and illustrative genres and will challenge the viewer to expand their understanding of the photographic medium and its possibilities.

Paul Raymond Kennedy.

Paul Raymond Kennedy.

“For as long as I can remember, homelessness has fascinated me,” Carroll says. “When I was in high school, I wrote a play. The central character in the play, she was a homeless person, and she gets hit by a truck and she becomes a superhero, and her goal is to help homeless people.”

As an art student studying photography in Newcastle, Carroll took note of one of the city’s more visible homeless men. And he still sees the same subject around town.

“My feeling is, a lot of the [homeless] people I meet, they definitely had some mental issues,” Carroll says. “I believe if we could find a cure for a lot of the illnesses out there, you’d probably get a lot of people off the streets. It also got me thinking, mental illness could happen to absolutely anybody. It’s indiscriminate.

“Is that the difference between them and myself?”

The subjects in his portraits for the Look Twice show have been shot over a period of years. Some of the images have been published, but not many. 

He usually engages his subjects in a conversation first.

“I try to be respectful,” he says. “I introduce myself before asking if I can take a picture. Some are so appreciative of the company. They are sitting there and no one looks at them. I’m interested in who they are.”

Among his subjects are Paul Raymond Kennedy, a homeless man who was riding trains, and the late John “Johnny Bongo” Pittman, often seen in colourful clothes and hair and never short of a song. 

John "Johnny Bongo" Pittman.

John "Johnny Bongo" Pittman.

For a person who shoots photos of people for a living every day, he says these subjects are different.

“I certainly think of it as a privilege because … most of them aren’t happy they are homeless. For them to be able to say to me ‘I’ll let you take my picture’, for me, wow, it’s unreal. It’s a privilege. We probably don’t have a huge amount of time here either. I just feel lucky they say yes.” 

Carroll knows he’s not seeing the whole picture. 

“The real problem is not the ones on the street,” he says. “It’s the ones you don’t see, living in cars, couchsurfing. There are families living in their cars. They still have some pride and won’t sit on the corner and beg. There’s a lot more to homelessness than people living on the street.”

All of Carroll’s images at the exhibit will be for sale. The profits will be donated to Our Backyard, a charity that assists homeless people in the Hunter who live in their vehicles.

Look Twice,  Aug 14-Sept 24, Cessnock Regional Art Gallery, 16 Vincent Street, Cessnock, open Tuesday through Sunday, 10am to 4pm.