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How A 17 Year Old Humanizes Homelessness Through Photos

Leah Benbok

Expressing the stories of the homeless through art has been a labour of love for Leah Denbok.

Now, the 17-year-old shutterbug has been rewarded for her efforts as this year’s winner of the Murray J. Clerkson Award, presented by the Blue Mountain Foundation for the Arts (BMFA).

The Clerkson Award supports excellence by local emerging artists. The winner receives a cash prize of $1,000. This year there were 21 applicants, which were narrowed down to five finalists. Two years ago Denbok, a Collingwood native, was the runner-up for the award.

“As I need money for college, I was hopeful about winning the award. My dad -- knowing how disappointed I was when I didn’t win it last time -- kept cautioning me to not get my hopes up too high,” says Denbok.

Work by Denbok, as well as the four other finalists, is currently on display at the BMFA Arts Centre as the 2018 Clerkson Award Exhibition until June 24.

Denbok’s photography journey began when she was 12 and came across some photography work that inspired her to buy a camera from a local hock shop. She began by taking photos of nature, where she started to find her niche.

Later that year when Denbok was thinking of quitting photography in discouragement, her dad set up a consultation between Denbok and Joel Sartore, a National Geographic photographer and Fellow.

“He told me that, in his experience, all of the successful photographers focus on one genre or another. He said that, in his opinion, my strength was portraiture,” says Denbok.

“Needless to say, he has been an invaluable guide. He’s helped me to avoid a lot of mistakes.”

Denbok then began photographing children and senior citizens in nursing homes. When photographing seniors became impractical due to consent issues, Denbok’s dad came across the work of Lee Jeffries, a British photographer who focuses primarily on people experiencing homelessness.

Within a week, Denbok was in Toronto with her dad, photographing people on the street.

After bringing along a friend to interview the subjects Denbok was photographing, Denbok starting interviewing the subjects herself.

This inspired Denbok’s father to suggest creating a book. The first volume of Nowhere to Call Home was released in November.

Volume 2 of Nowhere to Call Home is due out in July, and volume 3 is due in January.

“My goal with these books is to change the general public’s perception of people experiencing homelessness. This is, obviously, a long-term goal, so I expect to release a lot of volumes of my book before all is said and done,” says Denbok.

For more information on Denbok and her book, click here.




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