"The Neighbours Project" Creates Tintype Portraits Of The Homeless To Raise Awareness And Donations

"The Neighbours Project" Creates Tintype Portraits Of The Homeless To Raise Awareness And Donations

As a writer for Fstoppers I hear about a lot of personal projects. This past weekend, my attention was grabbed when I read about how Denver-based photographer Dylan Burr undertook a project to create wet plate collodion photographs. It wasn't his image making process that stood out to me though- it was his subject matter. Read on to see the images Dylan created, but also hear how he is hoping to impact the community through his efforts.

Dylan is full time photographer by day– often shooting weddings and portrait sessions out the Rocky Mountain State. Like many other creatives, when work is slow, he fills his time by undertaking personal projects. What started as a simple idea blossomed into something much larger.

While chatting with his cousin, who happened to be a deacon at a nearby church, they found themselves on the topic of those who are less fortunate. They both agreed that their expressions are very powerful when rendered in an image. Dylan had recently begun shooting tintype portraits, and realized that with the unique look of those type of images combined with the expressions of the homeless, the result could be quite dramatic. But how could he do wet plate photography in the streets?

The technical aspects of doing wet plate on the street in winter seemed almost impossible, but I couldn’t let the idea go. I sat down with my assistant and we brainstormed how to make it possible and then it developed into doing a film and a book. Working with The St. Francis Center was key. They allowed me to use an office at the day shelter and then it was up to me to find people who would be interested.

Dylan considered running an online fundraiser ahead of time, but ultimately decided to wait until the project was done to do any sort of fundraising.

I was too excited to start and figured it would be stronger actually having the work to show and share. You don’t need to worry if I’m not a flaky artist or that I may or may not actually get the job done. It’s ready to go.

Dylan ended up creating an IndieGogo campaign to support this project, after the fact, with sales of the film and books going to the St. Francis Center (the day shelter that helped everyone featured in this project.) Apart from this online fundraiser, he planned to auction off the original wet plate prints, with the proceeds going to the people in the photographs. This is a unique approach as the work is already done, so you know exactly what you are supporting.

So back to Dylan's story... With a goal in mind and work to be done, Dylan put his feet on the pavement and set out to find people to photograph. He was surprised at how difficult this actually was, and by how many homeless had been approached by photographers before.

I have come to find out that MANY MANY photographers and writers are always coming around to take pictures of them or get their take on the homeless. Very rarely is it every about that specific person. Its always about the group or the “condition” of homeless.
Terri, one of the African American women I photographed mentioned that a week prior someone asked to take her photograph and she said no but her friend said sure. Then after they asked what for? The photographer mentioned, “Oh, Im doing a photo essay about prostitutes,” and walked away. Terri nor her friend are prostitutes and were never asked if they were. This happens a lot. People impose what they want you to see of the homeless.

With some folks lined up, Dylan began creating. Apart from the challenges of finding and working with his subject matter, he also had to make sure he created images properly, as wet plate collodion photography isn't nearly as simple as "point and shoot." Dylan explained that is has made him slow down and become a much more methodical shooter.

The biggest thing to overcome was the collodion. It’s an organic compound and it's always changing sensitivity speed. Having enough light and cooperation with the subject to stay still was difficult. The sensitivity of digital/film is your ISO. The best quality you can get on a digital camera is 100 maybe 50. Collodion is measly 1 and with older (3 month+) collodion it can get down to .25 or lower. You need a ton of flash power or build your exposure with sunlight.

The approach is entirely different, but the results speak for themselves. Photography goes back to being a craft when there are some many steps involved and a physcial/chemical development taking place. Dylan compared shooting digital to using a wet plate setup:

The wet plate session is more about the magic/science of photography. You also get to see an image like you've never seen before. Collodion is most sensitive to UV light and has a different color spectrum for where colors fall in the grey scale.

The collodion session feels special and rare. We've become so desensitized to photographs in this instant digital age and spoiled for how easy they are now to take. Because of that they have lost a bit of their meaning and value.

I don't feel one is better than the other. They both have strengths and weaknesses. Its nice to just grab my camera and head out the door and take 100 shots in seconds that look good. Also very rewarding to do a wet plate session and get 3 amazing shots that you just can't with digital.

Besides the photographs, a short documentary film has also been created. Supporters of the project will get to see this short film that includes interviews with the subjects in the images. It's a very intimate look into the lives of these people, and rather than a broad commentary on the scene of being homeless, the discussion goes deep into the subject's personal stories and experiences.

If you'd like to learn more about the Neighbours Project or make a donation for an artbook or copy of the film, head over to the Neighbours Project website.

All images used with permission from AventuraPhotoVideo.

Mike Wilkinson's picture

Mike Wilkinson is an award-winning video director with his company Wilkinson Visual, currently based out of Lexington, Kentucky. Mike has been working in production for over 10 years as a shooter, editor, and producer. His passion lies in outdoor adventures, documentary filmmaking, photography, and locally-sourced food and beer.

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Tintype is awesome, but I'm so tired of homeless portraits.

Art is about creative expression, and you're not able to effectively express the hardships of homelessness with a few photos anymore. Not only that, but there are thousands of photographers who have done homeless series, which touches on the lack of creativity when it comes to the creative expression of things.

Homeless series are simply lazy...

I don't think his goal was100% about self promoting and setting the world on fire with an artistic statement, but rather using his talents to help some people in need. I think that's admirable and lost on many "creatives" today. Good work!

That may his intent, but most people are already aware of the plight of homelessness. Awareness doesn't give these people food, clothes, or shelter.

Not to say that it isn't helpful in some way. It's more humanitarian than anything I'm doing. But just as a creative concept brought to fruition, I think Zach is saying that it's somewhat stale (at least currently.)

Agreed. Everyone knows being homeless is rough and difficult. What I am doing is not merely awareness. I am helping these 30 people and the day shelter I met them at.

Haven't you wondered why they are homeless? How could I actually help you? What would give you that extra push to get a steady job? What are you doing to no longer be homeless?

These are the things I asked them and its in the book and the film. Its so much more than the photographs. Although showing them and their names are a good start.

http://www.neighboursproject.com ~ wander around and you'll get a larger picture.

Yeah I guess I wasn't reading this from the perspective of judging his creative vision but rather a personal project designed to "pay it forward" if you will. The sales of his documentary, books as well as the auctions sales of the original plates are going to the shelter and homeless people involved. To me this is more than simple awareness and seems to be the main point of the effort. Not much photography being posted today represents a revolutionary concept, but shooting wet plate in the streets is as good as any.

One good twist could be to photograph people who by the premade donation bags at grocery shops.

Showing that ANYBODY can make a donation sometimes has more effect than showing the dire needs for donations...

I think the intent was really good here and this case is somewhat different because they're trying to help but I'm inclined to agree. The homeless thing is way overdone IMO. I really never was into street photography but it seems like so many people just throw a couple of homeless folks in their portfolio/album add some processing to make their skin look even more weathered then call it a day.

I agree too. That's why I created the documentary film as well and did the portraits with the wet plate process. Most of the series I have seen have very little info on the people themselves and added "edgy" editing in lightroom/photoshop to give the photograph more feel. You simply can't do that with wet plate. Its a honest reality of who these people are.

Jobie is on the left, he actually decided to become homeless so be able to have enough money to provide for his son and get him to graduate high school and into college or a trade school.

Ilie is on the right. He has done something similar. All his family is in Romania and he sends everything he makes from working over there as he cannot get construction work there and actually get paid for it.

how can i make this type of color effect in photos?

Its not an effect. It's wet plate collodion.