2 Agency Creatives Document the Intimate Lives of New York City’s Homeless

The photo project showcases essential items people carry with them

The project looks to humanize New York's homeless. - Credit by Homeless Essentials
Headshot of Patrick Coffee

In New York City, 63,000 men, women and children are homeless, and every night, approximately 4,000 sleep on the street.

Simon Dolsten and Chris Bosler recently took time away from their jobs as an advertising copywriter and art director to collaborate with photographer Gabriella Lincoln and low-income housing charity Urban Pathways to create “Homeless Essentials,” an art project documenting the lives of these individuals as embodied by the objects they carry.

The name of the project is quite literal, as Dolsten, Bosler and Lincoln spoke to several members of the city’s homeless population and told their stories visually, not with images of their faces but the most essential items from their daily lives.

Dolsten and Bosler worked together at KBS (now Forsman & Bodenfors) and freelanced at New York agencies including Havas and Annex88 before putting their passion project to paper.

“We wanted to do a side project for a good cause. … It all started with us looking at magazines and blogs and always seeing these articles that listed off 10 essentials some celebrity couldn’t live without or five must-have summer essentials and realizing those items weren’t essentials—they were luxuries,” Dolsten said. “We wanted to point this out and capture real essentials.”

Once they developed the idea, Dolsten and Bosler found willing creative and nonprofit partners in Lincoln and Urban Pathways. In the process, they captured moments of humanity in items with little or no monetary value.

“We interviewed a variety of people struggling with homelessness and captured their items and stories in a digital experience,” Bosler said. “We wanted the photography to capture people’s attention and then bring them in with quotes and longer-form stories.”

In the online exhibit, the seemingly meaningless objects tell larger stories. The most dramatic may be a $36,073.42 bank withdrawal slip from a homeless man named James, who earned the money in a nine-year lawsuit concerning his late mother before losing it all in a single day.

At the same time, the creatives made sure not to focus only on the negative. James’ story (below) also includes his GED book and recent sobriety tickets.

“We wanted to show that despite that tremendous loss, he still had hope,” Dolsten told Adweek.

“Chris and I spent a lot of time discussing what stories to feature,” said Dolstein, who added that he and Bosler conducted many more interviews than the six “deep dives” ultimately featured in the project. “We found out that for a homeless person, something as simple as wet wipes could mean getting back a sense of humanity.”

“We spent a lot of time studying these ‘essentials’ articles,” said Bosler when discussing the visual makeup of the work. “A key thing for us was using a similar photography style so the items would feel both familiar and different. We wanted to make a subtle visual point about the culture around these ‘essentials’ articles without overtly attacking the fashion and pop culture blogs.”

They used dark colors to emphasize the “gritty and raw” nature of the work and structured the piece digitally in headline and body format to get viewers’ attention before elaborating on each individual case.

Dolsten and Bosler also insisted the subjects choose their own essentials to truly reflect their personal realities.

“During Monica’s interview, we were surprised to see that most of her essentials were makeup-related,” Dolsten said. “But as she told us how she used that makeup to hide scars from domestic abuse, those items took on an entirely new meaning. We hope that’s reflected in her story.”

“Homeless Essentials” was very different than the advertising work the creatives do every day. But they said it is also not intended to be explicitly political in nature. Rather, they hope it helps viewers empathize with people who’ve become homeless through “a series of unfortunate events” that are “never really someone’s fault.”

@PatrickCoffee patrick.coffee@adweek.com Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.