Klaus Störch, DipEd, author and amateur photographer, lives near Frankfurt am Main in Germany and, as head of the Haus St. Martin, he also takes care of people in need. Strongly influenced by literature and photography in his private life, he has begun to integrate artistic and cultural measures into his work. At the beginning of October 2011, the Haus St. Martin opened a non-profit gallery that is now showing a collection of deeply evocative portraits of homeless men and women. Interested venues have the opportunity to book a showing of the “No Home” portrait collection in combination with an informative event. Here he shares the story of how this exhibition came together and you can also read our interview with Klaus Störch in German.

Q: Mr. Störch, you care for and support homeless people. How and why did you forge links between your work at the Haus St. Martin and your creative, artistic projects?

A: First of all, we want to give the people who use our facilities a stronger voice in their environment and in society as a whole. And this is where art and culture can provide educational support. On the one hand, such projects have a motivating effect and also offer enormous potential for personal development and realisation – which, in turn, has extremely positive effects on an individual’s self-esteem. On the other hand, our constant aim is to promote direct exposure to art and culture. The way I see it, every individual has a natural need to gain access to art and culture. With our literary events, discussion evenings and numerous exhibitions by artists, we have created a forum that has been particularly well received and attracts a widely varied audience. Activities and exhibitions like these break down the anxiety threshold between individuals and the environment in a way that has extremely positive effects on the social reintegration process.

Q: What are the aims of this cultural and creative element of your work, and what significance do you place on photography?

A: The core of the matter is the active involvement of the individual and his or her identification with our institution. The fundamental aim of direct involvement of the homeless is to rebuild their trust in their own capabilities and reinforce their feeling of self-esteem. Photography provides outstanding value in this because it is immediate and results-oriented.

Q: How did you become interested in photography, and what are your key subjects?

A: I began to take a strong interest in photography in the early ‘80s when I developed an intense personal desire to explore the creative and documentary potential that photography offers as a form of expression. I started off with a Pentax ME Super SLR and a very compact Ricoh FF1. In my case, the rather special attraction to photography with Leica cameras began quite early on. I’ve now had a Leica M6 TTL for several years. I decided that we should use a Leica D-Lux 5 for the project with the homeless. My approach to photography is essentially spontaneous and intuitive with a key focus on documentation.

Q: What is the basic concept behind “No Home” and what is its core message?

A: Homeless men and women often suffer from social marginalisation and discrimination. This is the reason why this exhibition shows the homeless in a different context from the usual depressing scenes of life on the streets or in shelters or canteens run by charitable organisations. Here, the focus is on faces. These faces reveal honest pride, happiness, optimism, anger, grief and sometimes, despair and resignation. Our main objective was to give the homeless a face and give them back their dignity.

At the same time, we must consider that, for many people, our institution is their temporary home. And this is another aspect we hope to express and document with our gallery. In our foyer and stairwell, the homeless, without a permanent home in society, find a symbolic reference point and a permanent home.

Q: What approach did you take when shooting these portraits?

A: We shot everything in an improvised studio. A quick change turned the conference room used by our team of social workers into a makeshift studio by hanging up a black curtain as a backdrop and using an old lamp as a spot. We were not driven by the idea of creating a collection of works of outstanding aesthetic and artistic quality. But, nevertheless, I think the results speak for themselves.

Q: I noticed that if you take these portraits out of their immediate social context, they hardly reveal the truth about the subjects.

A: We frequently hear this kind of feedback. These plain and simple yet emotive portraits against a black backdrop set an intense focus on the main subject. People viewing the portraits immediately see the subjects not primarily as members of the ranks of the homeless, but rather as human beings, or should I say, individuals, whose faces appear to tell a story. Whenever we show the portraits to people without first explaining the background, they frequently assume that our models are actors, authors or artists.

Q: Did you find it difficult to get homeless people from your institution to take part in the project?

A: It didn’t take long to convince our models because almost everyone immediately grasped the idea behind the project and welcomed it. I found that there was intense enthusiasm for the project rather than mistrust or reluctance to take part. In any case, it took a relatively short time before we had 50 volunteers for the “No Home” project.

Q: Did shooting together have positive effects on the mutual trust within the group?

A: A therapeutic component did emerge to some extent during the shooting sessions. In quite an intimate moment, that was by no means a familiar situation the members of the group or myself, it was only natural at the beginning that certain inhibitions had to be broken down. That’s why the majority of the people taking part came further and further out of their shells as the sessions progressed and became more and more accessible as a result. In some cases, increased trust, along with increasing mutual respect, resulted in a greater need to communicate personal problems and hardships. This made it possible to focus on these particular issues in the following counselling sessions. So, at the end of the day, the shooting sessions brought much more to light than many a counselling session that came before. The project therefore greatly enriched my work.

Q: How did you go about selecting the portraits for the gallery?

A: We left almost all the responsibility for selecting the portraits up to our models. This introduced a personal factor – namely, how they see themselves and how they would like to be seen by the world around them. We shot a maximum of 36 pictures at each session and then got together with the participants to choose which portraits they felt captured their character best.

Q: What made you decide to shoot the portraits with a Leica D-Lux 5?

A: Although the camera is very small and compact, I really love its manual setting options and the outstanding quality of the pictures it takes. There’s hardly a trace of noise in the shots, not even when they’re enlarged to make 50 × 75 cm prints. And there were hardly any adjustments to be done on the computer. I’m fascinated and very happy about the fact that this little camera can capture such wonderfully emotive pictures under conditions that are less than optimal. In this respect, the D-Lux 5 performed considerably better than I had expected.

Q: Is “No Home” a one-off project or are you planning to increase the use of photography in your work?

A: We certainly intend to increase our creative activities, and photography will continue to play an important role in our plans. In the meantime, we are already thinking about new projects. For example, in collaboration with the RheinMain University of Applied Sciences, we envisage bringing together a group of student photographers and a year of the social work department with the goal of documenting the everyday lives of the homeless by means of street photography. Our aim is the creation of a portrait combining social angles and the hard reality of life on the streets.

Q: How has the public’s response to “No Home” been so far? What are your future plans after this first exhibition in your institution?

A: On the whole, I’m very happy about the extraordinarily positive public reaction in local and national media. In March, “No Home” will be going on tour and any interested institutions can book it to be shown at their venues. We will, of course, also be offering an informative event as a part of the exhibition. The first stop on the “No Home” tour will be a Caritas institution in Augsburg.

-Leica Internet Team

If you are interested in booking the ‘No Home’ exhibition, please contact Klaus Störch at: stoerch.haus-st.-martin@caritas-main-taunus.de.