In 2008 accountant and photographer Lee Jeffries was in London to run in a marathon. A couple of hours before the competition Jeffries decided to stroll around the city to take pictures. Close to Leicester Square, he turned his 5D camera with a 70-200 lens towards a homeless young woman, tucked in a bag around some Chinese food containers. “She saw me and started screaming at me, calling people’s attention”, says Jeffries. “I could very much have gotten out of there, embarassed, or could have gotten closer and apologize.” He chose the latter, crossed the street and sat next to the woman. The eighteen year-old woman, whose physical appearance could very much point to drug use, told Jeffries the following story: her parentes had died, leaving her without a penny, and now she was living out in the London streets.
This had a profound impact on Jeffries, raising his interest on the subject which has been shaping his work ever since – taking pictures of homeless people and/or street beggars – and defining his approach towards photography itself. Of course, he does not intend to explore these people, or steal their photographs, like many professionals do – noting homeless people as an easy target. In an effort to make intimate portraits, Jeffries tries to communicate with each one of them in a very intimate way, first place. Since then, his faces, in a series of impressive pictures in black and white, have come from many different places in the world – from London, Los Angeles, Paris, Rome, Las Vegas, New York, among other urban areas.
“His work has a lot of impact”, says A. Nakamura, Sincronia producer. “We didn’t know him at first, and it was only through mutual friends that we got to know his photos. But the most terrible thing is to see a talented person like him without full support”, continues the producer. “The curious thing was that he popped up right during the process of making It’s Almost True, and there was no way not to see how the two communicated”, he says. “In the beginning of the It’s Almost True project, the boys (director Emanuel Mendes and screenwriter André Campos Mesquita) really thought about making a real documentary about this tragic situation, especially in São Paulo, where there’s a lot of homeless people, some of them even with a graduation behind, but who got involved with crack and lost their family ties, just like the London girl story.”
His models are most of the times volunteers, and Jeffries can impact and sensitize by capturing emotional expressions of these people that are almost invisible to the overall population – actually we don’t want to see them. He also interviews them and is able to communicate simply for the fact that he lets them to be heard. Instead of making money by using a very vulnerable person, he confronts the subject that most of us tend to ignore, and part of his work has served as a basis for the art directors of It’s Almost True – admittedly by the team themselves. “On a very different level, of course, a sort of 180 degrees turn, but, yes, he was an inspiration”, says Ney Guimarães, one of the film’s art directors.
Today Jeffries still runs the London marathon, making donations with his equipaments, copies of the photos and donating cameras for the event organization, at the same time he does the same for other charity institutions around the world. “I can not change their lives”, explained Jeffries. “I can not raise a magic wand and transform something, but that also doesn’t mean I cannot take pictures of them and raise awareness towards their situation.” And even though he is known – he has won golden, silver and bronze medals
in amateur photographer contests –, his work, which almost reaches the hyperrealism level, continues to be financed by him. Lee Jeffries owns a studio in London through which he uses to promote his photographs.