Gimme Shelter

Homelessness and poverty—and the resilience of children—look similar the world over, as illustrated by Home/Life, a book and traveling exhibition organized by three friends, Geert van Asbeck, Frank Bierens, and Christiaan Kuypers. After growing up in the Netherlands, the trio scattered across the world to pursue their careers in publishing, journalism, and graphic design, respectively. Van Asbeck was living in Jakarta, Indonesia when, after seeing the living conditions of street children there, he conceived of the project. He enlisted his friends, and the three worked with nonprofit organizations in 11 cities—Budapest, Cairo, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Moscow, Nairobi, New Delhi, New York, Paramaribo, Paris, and Rotterdam—to set up photography workshops for disenfranchised children to document their lives and home cities. Bierens arranged for each participating child to receive a camera and a roll of film after every workshop. The 121 kids produced more than 15,000 images.

Kuypers, an experienced art director, stepped in to edit the images and design the book and exhibition. “I’d feared that the kids would produce too many pictures of just their families and friends, but there was a remarkable variety,” he says, “and the similarities that did emerge turned into a strength, creating a sense of shared humanity.” All the images were selected based on visual quality. The opening pages depict some common themes—sky, trees, cars, garbage—but the remaining 150 images are grouped only by city. Particular social problems of each city emerge—alcoholism in Moscow, glue sniffing in Johannesburg, ethnic marginalization in Budapest—but the perspectives are often similar. Most views are of streets, depicting both the vibrancy and inadequacy of unsheltered lives.

Kuypers created a simple and practical exhibition design that reinforces this sensibility. Using standard bus shelters, he created a display system by adding an additional light box, typically used to hold advertising, in place of the open side. “Many of the kids in the Moscow group live in a train station, so these shelters are not so far from their experience,” he says. They are also built for all weather conditions, and when placed in a public space, as they were outside Rotterdam’s Museumpark Kunsthal this past spring, they form a 24-hour gallery. “The curator told us that there were homeless people sleeping in them on opening night,” Kuypers says. He adds that he liked the idea of the photographs replacing advertising: “These light boxes [usually] cater to people with money, to consumers, so this was a way of inserting a bit of reality.” This fall the shelters will travel to Paris, with stops at other participating cities planned for next year.

Each of the young photographers was given a copy of the book and is invited to the opening in his or her home city. “The children loved it. Neither they nor their parents have achieved a lot in their lives. Most of the things they initiate fail for some reason or another,” Bierens says. “Here they did their thing, and a year later there is a big exhibition and all the newspapers write about it.”

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