Cameroon timber “But, if people saw them as I did, as human beings, they’d see a sense of humour and that they are very resilient despite the fact of the tragedy in their lives.”
Published Jun 13, 2023 • Last updated Jun 19, 2023 • 3 minute read
Crombie McNeill photographs Alex Hayes, left, and René Ruest. McNeill has intermittently shot portraits of homeless people in Ottawa since 1965. He has a show of his portraits at Vistek. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia Just before noon on a recent Friday, Crombie McNeill was outside on the steps of Centretown United Church on Bank Street, chatting with Alex “Dr. Fox” Hayes and René Ruest, two young men waiting for the church’s Centre 507, which provides meals and other services, to open.
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Access articles from across Canada with one account. Share your thoughts and join the conversation in the comments. Enjoy additional articles per month. Get email updates from your favourite authors. Hayes was the more talkative of the two, explaining how his knowledge of folk remedies earned him his nickname. McNeill asked if he could photograph the pair, a request he’s made of members of Ottawa’s street-inclined population hundreds of times over the years.
The first was in 1965, when one of McNeill’s bosses suggested that he go to the Ottawa Mission, then known as the Union Mission for Men, on one of his days off and introduce himself and photograph some of the people there.
At the time a budding 23- or 24-year-old junior photographer with the Ottawa Journal newspaper, McNeill wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the idea. For one, it wasn’t even a proper assignment that would get in the paper; it was just something that the paper’s chief photographer, Rudi Wolf, thought would be good for McNeill to do. More troubling for McNeill, however, was the reception he anticipated receiving.
“I went there fully expecting the worst possible reception,” he recalls. “I expected these people would be ashamed of themselves, that they wouldn’t want their pictures taken, that they’d tell me to f— off or steal my cameras or something like that.”
A portrait taken by Crombie McNeill at the Ottawa Mission in 1965. Photo by Provided, /Crombie McNeill Instead, McNeill’s eyes were opened by a generous and warm response. “They said, ‘Yes, we’ll pose for you.’ ‘By all means, take our picture.’ They offered me coffee.
“It really shocked me because I had all these preconceived ideas about what street people or homeless people were all about.”
The experience, McNeill says, had a deep and lasting influence on his career as a photojournalist.
“It was the humanity of it,” he recalls. “In other words, don’t go at anything with any prejudice or preconceived ideas. Be open and accept things for what they are. And, most of all, be honest and straightforward.
“There’s too much prejudice against these people as individuals. It’s a real serious problem. But, if people saw them as I did, as human beings, they’d see a sense of humour and that they are very resilient despite the fact of the tragedy in their lives.”
‘Noel & Mario’ by Crombie McNeill. Photo by Provided, /Crombie McNeill Over a freelance career that took him and his cameras around the globe, McNeill intermittently returned to Ottawa’s streets to capture intimate photos of the city’s homeless and at-risk population. An exhibition of some of those black-and-white portraits is on display until the end of June at Vistek camera store on Bank Street, just across Argyle Street from the church where McNeill met Hayes and Rust.
Some of the photos on display were taken almost 20 years ago when McNeill, an Aylmer resident, retired and more earnestly picked up his longtime passion project. Others were taken just last month. Most of the portraits are tightly framed, without much in the way of environmental background.
“I try to be a minimalist,” he explains. “I’m interested in them as opposed to the environment — although oftentimes the environment is very important. But I wanted to show that you can get close to these people. I was not half a block away with a telephoto lens photographing these folks; I was up close and personal.”
Simply spreading awareness of the problem of homelessness and the humaneness of his subjects is what drives McNeill’s work, but he admits it’s an uphill battle, with homelessness growing faster than the population in general.
“The Mission and the Shepherds (of Good Hope) are doing a pretty good job,” he says, “but there’s been a dramatic increase in the demographics. It used to be almost all men, but now there’s a mix of men and women 40 and older. But the biggest change has been in the number of youths.”
McNeill also cites a shift from alcohol to other substances as an aggravating factor in what he describes as a dire situation and says he’s hoping to eventually publish his portraits in a book to further raise awareness of the issue.
“The idea would be to get the book in the hands of police, councillors, the mayor and the general public, and maybe they’ll say, ‘You know what? These people ARE worth looking after. Maybe we’re not going to cure anything, but let’s give them food. Let’s improve their lives.’”