REVIEW: A Seat at the Fireside – heartwarming book of portraits of Brum’s poor and homeless
A new photography book showcasing poignant and compassionate studio portraits of people who have endured life under terrible social and economic conditions aims to raise money for Birmingham homeless charities.
‘A Seat at the Fireside’ by Paul Martin has been published with the intention to donate all proceeds from the sale of the book to three local Birmingham charities.
The Birmingham-born photographer has a deep rooted passion for people based photography. In his spare time Paul has been assisting and supporting homeless and vulnerable people at a drop-in centre.
It was while working as a weekend volunteer at Sifa Fireside – a Birmingham charity that helps and provides warm meals for the homeless – where the idea for a book came to Paul.
Speaking to I Am Birmingham Paul said: “Since I volunteered at the shelter I realised I could do something good with this book to raise awareness of the homeless and vulnerably housed as well as raising funds for homeless charities in Birmingham.”
Paul’s plan to produce a quality coffee table book of portraits, which gives a positive voice to the plight of Birmingham’s homeless, took several years of careful and meticulous planning before it was finally published. According to Paul the book took “blood, sweat and tears” from the time it was envisioned in his mind to the time it was printed.
The Mighty Shed, the Birmingham based design company where Paul worked at the time when the book idea came to him, funded the publication costs of the charity book.
“The book is a passion project that has taken many years to come to fruition. The idea behind this book is to raise awareness to homeless and vulnerably housed people in Birmingham as well as raising some much needed funds for local charities who do an amazing job in this sector,” he said.
In a world overflowing with wealth and abundance it is a crime against humanity when the poorest people in society are cast aside, their voices silenced, and their plight buried and ignored. These poor people have their identity, humanity, individuality, and sometimes even their sanity, all stripped away by a cold and ruthless system that stigmatises the homeless and vulnerable.
Paul’s photographic portraits go beyond the occasional news headlines and political propaganda that seemingly demonises the poor.
The prejudice, negativity and bias that homeless people deal with on a regular basis in their daily existence is kept at bay in the book. Paul gives his subjects a platform to simply be ‘themselves’ and all negative stereotypes are drained away in the studio shot portraits.
“I wanted to photograph the people before me in a dignified and respectful way – unburdened of their present circumstances and situation. This would allow me to challenge the stereotypes and preconceptions that surrounded them,” writes Paul in the preface to the book.
The people in the photographs appear as fellow travellers on their journey through life. One of the key things behind the photographic book project was to show homeless people without passing quick or cruel judgement on their predicament. It was important to Paul to showcase the individuals without the sensationalist stereotypes.
“I tried to capture their personalities in an honest and open way in a studio environment, shot over the course of a week in one of the rooms at the drop-in. I wanted to showcase some of the wonderful people I met there,” said Paul.
The resulting photographs reveal details and perspectives that celebrate the humanity in each individual who took part in the project. Despite the trials and tribulations of an existence made difficult by austerity and economic downturn, the people in the photographs show resilience and the human spirit remains undiminished.
Paul supplies short and illuminating notes that introduce each of the 24 individuals whose portraits appear in the book.
These brief backgrounds quickly provide an insight into the individuals in the photographs and their ‘voices come alive’. The details provide glimpses into the dreams, hopes, aspirations, and passions of the people whose lives radiate from the pages of the book.
These reflections and stories add another layer of depth to the photographs. The book features the inspirational story of Samuel who escaped war as a teenager in Eritrea. He initially came to the drop-in centre to use the services and later became a volunteer. Despite the scars and trauma of war he is now gradually rebuilding his life. The smile in the portraits of Samuel radiate warmth and a positive outlook.
One man, named Chris, displays a series of emotions in the photographs. His sparkly character at times playful and full of energy, and then inward looking and subdued. Although he hails from Leeds, he said he was in Birmingham to visit friends. That sense of belonging and meeting fellow human beings is a strong undercurrent with many of the people who use the services at the drop-in centre.
Omar, a service user at Sifa Fireside, has a passion for poetry and art and uses his time volunteering with various Birmingham charities by helping out with arts and crafts sessions. The stereotypes that surround homeless and poverty stricken people are constantly challenged in the book.
In 2016 at the Birmingham Christmas Shelter a man named Peter sadly passed away leaving behind Torius, a brindle Staffordshire bullterrier. Peter’s friend Jason, who is himself experiencing poverty and shelter issues, vowed to look after his friend’s dog.
Jason and Torius are still together, and still part of the Birmingham landscape. This story shows that despite not having much in this world a poor man’s heart can still reach out and help others, even an animal. Jason may be poor in money but he is rich in compassion, mercy, and love. Torius, that little Staffordshire bullterrier, he knows the warmth and love that Jason gives him.
One of the most poignant voices heard in the book belongs to a homeless man named Paul who is a common sight around Birmingham city centre. Talking about accommodation he says, “There’s not enough places for everyone anyway. Someone’s got to take the hit and I’m fine with it.”
There is a genuine sense of trust and rapport between the photographer and the person being photographed in each portrait.
The cacophony of the world outside the drop-in centre pauses for a moment, the daily fear and uncertainty of the streets and financial circumstances momentarily held at bay, and the person relaxes and their inner glow comes to the fore. Their features relax, inner pain eases, and the hustle and bustle of trying to find sustenance and maintenance ebbs away. The face peering back at the viewer from the pages of the book is not looking for pity or a handout. There is no hostility or anger.
Acceptance is what they desire. To be part of a world that has forgotten them. A world that no longer speaks to them with a kind word. These are people who ache to be understood and have their stories told. They seek the warmth of humanity.
In a world saturated with software filtered images shared frenziedly across social media platforms, and where beauty and fashion magazines produce heavily edited and filtered images which are designed to make the readers feel ‘inferior and ugly’ and conditioning them to purchase the beauty products advertised in the publications, comes a book of portraits of homeless and vulnerably housed people where no such gimmick, filter, artifice or photographic trick is used to ‘beautify’ the individuals.
Paul has captured unvarnished human emotion in these startlingly beautiful photographs of homeless or vulnerably housed people in a refreshing and positive perspective. Like a Renaissance artist chiselling away upon a block of marble, Paul deftly chisels away the public fear and prejudice associated with homelessness and the end result is a series of incredibly moving photographs of human beings freed from social stereotypes and stigmas.
The beauty, humanity, and dignity of each person who took part in the project comes across with warmth and grace.
Paul’s aim was to “capture them with honesty and compassion”. He refrains from using cliché, passing judgement, or employing any type of melodrama or resorting to exploitative techniques. There is respect and compassion in each photograph.
There is no artificial gloss on display here, and no fakery. These are real people who have experienced situations which have etched stories into their skin, and yet despite the wounds of life and circumstance, the cosmic light of life still sparkles in their eyes.
The issue of homelessness is often marginalised, neglected, or used as a scapegoat in the public consciousness. Paul believes that homeless people have an “absolute fundamental right to belong in a society that is all too happy to cast them aside”.
The deluxe book is produced with real attention to detail and uses the best type of interior paper to print the stunning series of photographs. The matte-like paper reduces shiny glare and allows the photographs to appear more textured, natural and earthy.
The sturdy binding is stitched and case bound to ensure the pages will not fall out after being handled a few times. This problem sometimes plagues cheaply bound art and photographic books that are heavy or oversized. The inferior binding ends up with the book eventually falling apart. This is not the case with ‘A Place by the Fireside’. This is a coffee table book that is designed to last for years.
The typeface for the text is well chosen and clean, and very easy to read, while the positioning of the images and use of white space to provide ‘frames’ for the photographs gives the book the appearance of a family photo album. Even the size of the book, which measures 28 x 28cm, has the look and feel of a family photo album. This decision makes the book more intimate and homely as opposed to a clinical and sterile looking pseudo-art book.
The 155-page hardback book is presented in a foil blocked slipcase which adds another layer of protection and beauty to an already lush book.
As the viewer turns the pages and sees the individuals in the photographs, and reads about their lives and experiences, a remarkable thing happens. Preconceptions about what we know, understand, or think about homelessness are cast aside and ‘a meeting of humanity takes place’ as each person in the book becomes more than just another statistic or headline.
These are people with names, with stories, with backgrounds and histories, and they all have human emotions. A genuine ‘internal dialogue’ takes place as the viewer glances into the eyes of the people in the book.
Homeless and abandoned people, who are often cruelly ignored on the streets of the city, are provided with a platform of dignity in this remarkable and compassionate book.
Endorsing the book and its sensitive theme, actor and social activist Michael Sheen said:
“What you’ll see here in these photographs are people. No more, no less. Unique individuals, certainly. Each with their own, singular path leading them here to these moments so beautifully and powerfully recorded. Their faces brimming with life, with stories, with experience. There’s much humour here, even, at times, delight. Some vulnerability, a lot of directness and a huge amount of warmth.”
Sheen also makes a crucial point about Paul’s compassionate and sensitive portrayal of the people in the remarkable series of photographs.
“What you won’t see here is judgement,” he adds. “You won’t see the trappings of circumstance. You won’t see pity. You’ll meet the person, not the issue.”
Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, who provides the forward to the book, also makes the point about looking beyond the ‘antisocial’ stereotypes associated with homelessness. He hopes the book will make people see and treat homeless individuals as “fellow citizens living real lives behind the headlines” and challenge negative viewpoints surrounding the plight of the homeless.
“This incredibly powerful and moving book reminds us how privileged we are, but it also gives us an insight into these people’s lives. You will laugh and you will cry, but you will also importantly understand that those who become homeless are no different to you and me. One stroke of bad luck and it could have been any one of us in this book,” he writes.
Paul’s personal project was long and arduous and the publication of the book at the end of 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, meant that the situation for Birmingham’s homeless is even more precarious as charities take a huge hit as donations and support are drastically cut.
He has pledged to donate all proceeds from the sale of the book to three homelessness charities which provide advice and support for homeless and vulnerable people. Crisis, Shelter, and Change into Action will receive donations from the sale of the book.
This is a rare kind of photographic book. One that feeds and enriches the heart and mind, and one that gives support to our fellow human beings who are facing an uncertain and challenging future in our city. The photographs in the book remind us of a shared humanity where people less well off are not judged by the circumstances in which they find themselves in.
‘A Seat by the Fireside’ (priced £50) is limited to 300 copies with all proceeds going to three Birmingham homeless charities. The book can be purchased at this link.