Victoria-based book publisher Friesen Press is helping a 17-year-old photographer fulfill her dreams of producing a book of photos, while also giving back to the region’s homeless population.
Leah Denbok, who lives in Collingwood, Ont., first picked up a camera five years ago. It was a used DSLR from a hockshop that Denbok says she was drawn to having always been fascinated by photography, but lacking the right equipment.
“It was merely for artistic reasons,” she says of finding herself photographing the homeless, inspired by her mother’s story of living as an orphan on the streets of India.
At first she was taken aback spending time in alleyways with people she never would have encountered otherwise. Denbok soon felt the photos deserved a larger audience and with the encouragement of her father Tim, and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore who believed in her talent, decided a book was imminent.
“We saw something pretty unique about her project,” says Tammara Kennelly, president of Friesen Press. The self-publishing model the Victoria-based company offered appealed to Denbok, primarily for financial reasons.
“There was definitely a values alignment,” Kennelly says of Denbok’s work and Friesen Press’ mandate. “We are very involved in our community in giving back and that’s what the genesis of her book was.”
Friesen publishes 1,000 books year in all genres, and earlier this month released Nowhere To Call Home: Photographs and Stories of the Homeless. Friesen will donate a significant portion of the proceeds from sales of Denbok’s book to Woodwynn Farms, a therapeutic community in Central Saanich that assists Greater Victoria’s homeless population.
“They’re almost always very kind and humble and selfless, and they have very attractive attributes about them,” Denbok says of her subjects. “People usually avoid them at all costs [but] they’re so kind, because they’re just happy for people to talk to them.”
The book includes 40 portraits, each with a story gleaned from conversations she and her father have had with street people – from Toronto to Hamilton to Barrie to New York City – each of whom they pay $10 to photograph. Denbok is interested in coming west to photograph the homeless communities in Victoria and Vancouver, so she’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover travel expenses and the costs associated with self-publishing.
The proceeds of her book however, are going right back into the community that has made the entire project possible. Denbok donates everything she earns to the Barrie Bayside Mission, a homeless shelter in Ontario.
Meanwhile, the teen is tossing around the idea of pursuing photojournalism, but first she’s got to graduate high school and then, release volumes two and three of Nowhere To Call Home, already in the works.
“I found you can actually make a difference with photographs and the reality is that I can make a difference doing something I enjoy,” she says.