Review of ‘Below the Skyline’ at the Jam Factory

Art Art & Lit Culture

Polaroid photos have long been the preserve of arty students and Cellar-goers. Homelessness Oxfordshire, however, has subverted this: their new exhibition at the Jam Factory in Oxford showcases images that capture (as best as photographs can) the experience of homelessness.

As you walk into the Jam Factory’s boiler room, past a cosy bookshelf and pot plants, you see polaroids arranged neatly across the three walls in front of you. There are various series of photographs interwoven together, creating a well-rounded view of the world of the homeless. There is a stark contrast between the Jam Factory’s warm, bustling café, and the quiet, white-walled boiler room. This contrast serves to highlight the gravity of the exhibition, while the presence of the pot plants and bookshelf perhaps help the viewer to appreciate the small domesticities that we often take for granted.

The photographs are complemented by quotes on the walls. These quotes, which illustrate the experience of homelessness, are from previously homeless people who have since been helped by Homelessness Oxfordshire. This charity provides shelter and every kind of support (financial, medical, pastoral, et cetera) to the homeless of Oxford. Its posters introducing the exhibition, to be found on the wall opposite the photographs, explain that the most visible form of homelessness is rough sleeping, and offer the distressing statistic that 4,751 people in Britain are currently sleeping rough. The charity’s aim with this exhibition is to ‘encourage you to look past the stereotypes [of homeless people]’ and to ‘see [the homeless] as the creative individuals they are’.

“They encourage the viewer to consider how many times they have viewed a homeless person as anything less than an individual.”

The set of photographs itself evokes the world of the street through images of urban life: graffiti, buildings, ambulances and signposts all feature. Pictures of familiar Oxford sights, including the river, specific street signs and landmarks, make the exhibition all the more poignant. Some of the most striking images, however, are those of tattoos: they offer a close-up view of words or images that mean something to the homeless individuals to whom they belong, which serves to humanise those who are so often dehumanised. It also perhaps encapsulates the idea of stigma, given the disparaging attitude that some hold towards tattoos.

It appears to be significant that we are only shown the tattoos themselves; few of the pictures show people in full, while many of them show a person in part. For example, one series of photographs shows a person walking, hidden underneath a sheet with their arms outstretched. Others present blurry half-faces, or faces turned aside, while one photograph in particular shows a man through a window. This peripheral presentation of the homeless perhaps alludes to their existing on the periphery of society. It also prompts us to confront the uncomfortable idea that we often don’t fully acknowledge the homeless. As well as this, these photographs of parts of individuals, rather than the whole, seem to convey the sense of anonymity that we sometimes confer on the homeless: that is, they encourage the viewer to consider how many times they have viewed a homeless person as anything less than an individual.

“In the quiet of the Jam Factory’s boiler room, faced with numerous small photographs neatly arranged on the wall, you can’t help but be sobered by the very real issue of homelessness in Oxford.”

It is possible, however, to extrapolate too much from these images. For example, the photograph of a ‘footpath closed’ sign is most likely not a comment on the closed-off opportunities for those without a home, but simply a static snapshot of the world in which the homeless live, and perhaps the indication of a physical barrier to a place to sleep. The photos are much more representative than they are metaphorical, and to think of the images as hiding a deeper meaning is to ignore the very real world that they present to us. A realistic depiction of homelessness is presented via the images of heaped belongings, such as duvets and cardboard boxes, on street corners and in doorways. There is also a photograph of a homeless person’s belongings piled up next to a house; the idea of a sapped set of possessions, carried in bags or on a trolley, is already upsetting, and this particular image adds the sad irony of a deconstructed home existing next to a fully furnished house.

The very experience of this exhibition is rather humbling. We often encounter rough sleepers out of the corner of our eye, passing them in a busy street. In the quiet of the Jam Factory’s boiler room, faced with numerous small photographs neatly arranged on the wall, you can’t help but be sobered by the very real issue of homelessness in Oxford.

Image credit: The Jam Factory