One morning in 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic turned the world upside down, street photographer Tom “TBow” Bowden was walking around the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans, Louisiana, primed to take pictures. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted a tall, skinny man with dreaded hair, wearing a wild melange of clothes that included a vest jacket patched up with Star Wars regalia, neon yellow and orange wristbands and pink Nike Jordan sliders.
TBow went up to the man, who goes by the name Pinky, and they soon got chatting about his outfit, before Pinky posed for a portrait. “It’s New Orleans so people drink and get drunk and lose their clothes and their shoes all the time, it’s a party city,” TBow explains. “Pinky’s going through dumpsters and he collects all of that – I mean they’re dirty clothes, but he makes fashion out of it.”
Pinky, who was homeless at the time, provided a glimpse into his backstory. “I’m a fashion designer,” he told TBow. “But I’m a very particular kind of designer – I make fashion out of the things I find.”
That shot is now presented in TBow’s latest series Fashion from the Streets, where he has presented a series of portraits the most extravagantly dressed subjects from his archive. Having long worked with homeless people in the USA and focused his lens towards people living on the margins of society, the series shines a different light on a section of the population who are often ignored and homogenised by mainstream society.
“Sometimes for the homeless a fashion statement is wearing everything you own,” he says. “One of my mentors Bill Cunningham liked to photograph well-to-do people hanging around Downtown New York and I’m not that way, but he [once] said: ‘Fashion is the armour to survive the reality of everyday life.’ And you know, honestly, I’m thinking that.”
The pictures are a celebration of colourful, characterful individuals who make up the homeless population. As someone who always engages with his subjects, TBow likes to learn about their lives and stories before capturing as much of their personality through the lens of his camera. There’s a portrait of a trans woman named Jazanae [pictured in the main image] who presented as a man in everyday life in fear of violence, expressing herself in bright pink women’s clothing whenever she would meet with TBow to make pictures, and a woman named Barbie who wore a glittery bum bag, pristine red Crocs and always kept a stuffed toy in her pocket.
It comes at a time when homelessness in the USA is on the rise, with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development counting 582,000 people – or 18 per 10,000 – who experienced homelessness in 2022. With inflation cutting people’s real incomes and several cities in the USA experiencing housing crises, the problems are set to worsen.
“In America, if you have money it’s a lot of fun. A little dangerous with the guns, but there’s good rock ‘n’ roll music, culture and movie stars,” TBow says. “But any medical doctor will say that we don’t look after the homeless – for one person medical insurance is about $1,500 a month, an ambulance ride to the hospital is around $5,000. This is the capitalist society, and it doesn’t work well for homeless.”
That’s why, for TBow, it’s important to showcase the humanity of those who are so often dehumanised. “It’s my raison d’être,” he says. “I want to show that homeless people are not a faceless [monolith]. My job is to lift them up.
“I like the people that are proud and are sometimes on a mission – their mission of fashion” he continues. “In his mind it’s Pinky’s job to dress up and show people his fashion. He is so proud of that outfit and that made me just love him – people are so interesting and I am in love with people.”
Fashion from the Streets by TBow Bowden and other street photography can be seen on his website and Instagram.
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