When a Wellington drop-in centre, the Clubhouse, announced it was closing its doors after its District Health Board funding was cut off, photographer Camus Wyatt smelled a story. Drop-in centres offer a place for the mentally ill and homeless to socialise, eat and find support. Starting with the Clubhouse’s former denizens, Wyatt began photographing Kiwis who had nowhere to go.
A fine art and editorial photographer with an eye for the nuances and humour of daily life, Wyatt grew up surrounded by books on photojournalism, thanks to a newspaper editor father and photographer uncle. He didn’t pick up a camera until the age of 21, but his transition from history and politics student to award-winning street photographer was rapid. Seven years later, most of his work still takes place in the streets of Wellington.
Wyatt quickly discovered that his story on homelessness required him to spend as much time without his camera as he did shooting. “I approached a lot of places in Wellington and came to the conclusion that I needed a basis of trust with these organisations and people,” he says.
“I’ve learned that it takes a lot of time, and the time isn’t always spent photographing, but it’s important for the photographs.”
He became a regular at the Wellington Night Shelter, hanging around the back until its inhabitants relaxed in his presence. It helped that he carried a rangefinder-style camera that, he says, didn’t look too professional, or too intimidating.
Avoiding exploitative and cliched depictions of the homeless remained on his mind throughout the four-month process of shooting this story. “Nine out of ten people aren’t passed out drunk on a park bench, but photographers seem to find the one person who is,” he says. “I was trying to make it representative but still visually interesting.”
For someone who makes a career out of observation, there’s still plenty on the street to surprise him. In this case, it was the “outrageous generosity” of people with very little to call their own, he says. “People with donated food were offering it to me, even though they didn’t have enough to take back to their tent.”