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Life Imitating Art

Fashion photographer Perou teams up with James McNaughton to save the nation’s homeless teens from becoming statistics

Written by . Published on November 25th 2011.

Life Imitating Art

WITH a headline a day screaming that youth unemployment is at its highest in 50 years and that youth related knife crime is escalating at an astonishing rate, it is no surprise that the younger generation have been dominating national headlines of late.

However, through the new medium of O2 Think Big, we are happy to hear that there is more positive press surrounding youths of today; news that tackles issues of a much more worthy and constructive kind.

“I became homeless when I was sixteen, I was arguing with my stepfather nonstop. It became a situation where I didn’t know who I was anymore, the arguing got to a point where it was so hostile, so volatile, it became unbearable to anyone who was involved.”

The new programme, backed by Headstrong and O2, is sweeping communities nationwide, and is a series of campaigns designed by youths between the ages of fourteen and 25, to deliver projects tackling issues surrounding mental health.

The programme consists of nearly 1,000 projects with some titles including Hands Up Who’s Bored, the Homework Club and Stand up Against Violence, all aiming to engage as many members of the public as possible.

Leading British fashion photographer, Perou, and 20-year-old homelessness activist, James McNaughton, teamed up to head the project Homelessness and the Arts, a scheme aimed at challenging society’s outlook on youth homelessness in the UK today. When asked what prompted him to use imagery to head this campaign McNaughton said, “We just wanted to change the perception of how the public viewed homelessness, and artwork provided the perfect outlet for that.”

The exhibition, already online, contains a series of images showing photographs of youths fading into the backdrop of different urban environments, with slogans such as ‘Admit I Exist’ and ‘When It Rains I Get Wet’ as feature taglines for the campaign.

Perou said, “We wanted to represent how homeless youths felt invisible in society, how they felt that they were no longer seen or heard.”

The duo’s primary objective was to dissuade the typical notion that homelessness was a result of alcohol or substance abuse – that it could actually result from something as average as an unsettled family life. They wanted to highlight how fine the line can be between living in a comfortable, physical environment to nothing at all.  

As a former homeless youth, McNaughton relays his past by saying, “I became homeless when I was sixteen, I was arguing with my stepfather nonstop. It became a situation where I didn’t know who I was anymore, the arguing got to a point where it was so hostile, so volatile, it became unbearable to anyone who was involved.”

McNaughton ended up living on the streets of Newcastle and Gateshead where he used to live in church backyards, tunnels, shop corridors and even train platforms. Luckily for him, however, he was picked up by the police at the age of eighteen, and was taken to a youth hostel were he spent the next two years building back his confidence and deciding on what direction he wanted to take in the future.

He explains how he managed to develop the campaign by working with those he lived with, and what it was like working with such a renowned photographer, such as Perou. “He was incredible at getting media attention, at public appearance. He was just so passionate about the cause, it really helped.”

B2775_O2_Think_Big_006James McNaughton and Perou

Perou, whose everyday clients include Justin Timberlake and Jude Law, admits that it was an adjustment to be involved in a project that underpins issues of a more political nature. “As a photographer I can be quite an eccentric and selfish person, as fashion can be quite a selfish industry, but it was nice to be encouraged to think about something else for a change.”

The project has now escalated and received such international acclaim, that photographers from America and Australia want to get involved. There are rumours of similar campaign talks being held in Prague and Berlin as well. McNaughton explains, “[What with the photography] that Perou has taken, and with the photography that the young youths have produced, Homelessness & the Arts has turned this into a completely open-ended, constantly running project.”

We asked McNaughton how it feels now, on reflection, to head such a successful campaign, one that has received such great media attention, when, up until recently, he was still living in a youth hostel with little or no direction.

“If someone told me four years ago that I would be working on a project that has got international attention, and I’d be working with a world famous photographer, I wouldn’t believe it to be honest with you. Obviously it’s going to be something that stays with me for the rest of my life.”


The exhibition is online now, and scheduled for exhibit in London in the New Year.

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