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Leah Denbok's Book About Homelessness Offers Art and Hope (Not Entertainment)

Chris is a high school teacher in Canada and mom of two children.

Leah Denbok captures the image—and spirit—of the homeless individuals she talks to.

Leah Denbok captures the image—and spirit—of the homeless individuals she talks to.

A Noble Cause Leads to a Simple Question

"Why is an amazing artist that captures homelessness in the "entertainment" section of CBC.ca?"

I received a DM—direct message—from a friend via Twitter about something that a mutual friend of ours had posted. It seems that a local girl—Leah Denbok of Collingwood, Ontario—decided at age 17 to take pictures of the homeless in Toronto, Barrie, Kitchener, and New York City with her father Tim's support. The pictures were transformed into a book entitled Nowhere to Call Home—Photographs and Stories of the Homeless, with proceeds going to benefit the Barrie Bayside Mission Centre.

Now, while I had a big heart as a teenager and still am big-hearted, I don't know that at 17 I had the wherewithal, first of all, to decide to go to several different locations and take pictures of homeless people. I wrote a poem about homelessness that I recall my English teacher rather enjoyed, but that was about it. What Ms. Denbok decided to do is truly noble, and from the look of the images posted on CBC.ca, she's got some serious skills.

There are some 35,000 Canadians nightly and 235,000 yearly who are homeless. These are serious figures, and there is no question that in taking these pictures and creating a book in which the homeless individuals that she photographs can tell their stories has the potential to make a difference to many.

But why was this story in the Entertainment section?

Misfiling the Story Misrepresents the Work

Commonly, newspapers will group anything to do with the arts alongside anything to do with entertainment. This has been a practice of many newspapers for years, and it will doubtless continue to be. However, what we consider "entertainment" in the 21st century has changed significantly, and that begs the question about whether novels and books that are designed to make a difference and inform people should be grouped under such a broad title.

There is no question that Ms. Denbok has a great deal of talent—that's not what's at issue here, and it's almost certain that her book will sell well simply because of her natural eye; her photos are pieces of art in their own right, and she evokes such emotion in her work that it's difficult not to feel swept up in that. However, the book itself is not designed to entertain.

Spotlighting and Humanizing

"With my book, I'm trying to portray two goals," Denbok said. "First of which is to shine a spotlight on the plight of homelessness, and second, I'd like to humanize homeless people because so often they're seen as subhuman individuals."

There are stories that float out there from time to time about the plight of the homeless and about how there need to be more shelters and more support to help people get off the streets and into homes, or medical support. Denbok's efforts to make a difference are not "entertaining;" she is an inspiration to those kids her own age, as well as to adults, that no matter how small a voice you think you might have, you can actually make a difference to many.

Does Denbok have any familiarity with homelessness? To an extent, yes; her mother Sara was found on the streets of Calcutta and taken care of by Mother Theresa until she was adopted at the age of 5 by a couple from Stayner, ON—a smallish town not far from Collingwood.

This Work Is Inspiring, Not Entertaining

The point is this: There is nothing remotely "entertaining" about what Leah Denbok is doing. Her work has been reported on by The National, and several media outlets are picking up her story about her project. The CBC should have looked at what Denbok is doing—particularly in light of the fact that Denbok is a 17-year-old who is fighting to make a difference for those less fortunate (something not frequently reported about when talking about kids today)—and made it a feature for one of their news sections.

While the CBC was almost certainly working with a traditional notion of filing with this story—Denbok is making a book, after all—there is nothing remotely traditional about what she's doing.

This is the story of a teenager working to make a difference in the world—not merely about a book—and that is what needs to be celebrated, not lost as an "Entertainment" filing. Leah Denbok and her work deserve better.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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