The urban machine
A city can be viewed in different ways. Many contemporary social scientists liken the city to a machine which contains bodies, materials, but also symbols or rituals. The important things in such an urban machine are not only those on the surface but also those that are hidden or on the margins. One can say that a city contains many other cities within that are (in)visible to different extents and to different people. Hobohemia or the “homeless city” is one of them. In early 20th century US, the term Hobohemia was used to refer to places with a concentration of hobos, urban tramps.
Hobos in Czechia
The term hobo signified a specific form of tramping, the first one that was historically associated with industrial cities. Hobos were the first urban form of homelessness. Wage laborers on railway construction in the summer, urban poor in the winter. Like the American hobos, Czech homeless people today, too, inhabit a specific time-space within Czech cities. They dwell on busy streets, near shopping centres and traffic hubs, but at different times of the day, their pathways take them just to urban peripheries as well. Their population is estimated at 70 thousand; or two hundred thousand including individuals at immediate risk of losing their home. Most of them are found in Prague, of course (about 4000 individuals, although other estimates talk about a local population of up to 8000).
Hobohemia through the camera lens
How can one get to see the “homeless city”? Best in the ways it is viewed and experienced by homeless people themselves. The photovoice method represents an ideal instrument. Several dozen homeless people took pictures of one of their days, of the places where they went and spent time. This gave rise to a unique collection of over two thousand photographs of how they move around the city and how they relate to places and other people. This exhibition presents ten of these authors who have revealed their Hobohemia. Three of them are women and the remaining seven men. They “reside” at different places. Some spend their nights under the bridge or in a squat, others in hostels, institutions or their friends’ places. Six individuals currently live in Prague, the rest comes from Pilsen. Each of their photographs not only documents the “homeless city” but also relays the emotions related to it – some positive, others negative. Thus, the photographs depict places associated with suffering and physical violence as well as ones referring to friendship or enjoying the moment. The experiences of the photographers vary but also have a lot in common.
The power of the photograph and the stories that cannot be found in it
Photographs are never innocent. They always produce specific effects – emotional ones, but also ones related to power – and relay specific messages about the photographer or an entire group. That is why we have added the photographers’ stories. In those stories, we attempt to present the past, the present, but especially the process that brought the different individuals to their current situation. We attempt to contextualize the photographs historically and socially. In doing so, we accentuate the political-economic dimension of homelessness, that is the historic perspective, the role of culture and meanings, as well as the general role of the market. As a result, the different stories tell us about the everyday repression faced by homeless people, the demands for individual performance that are so typical of today’s global market, or various aspects of the transition Czech cities have been undergoing.
The borders of the “homeless city”“The homeless city” is a multi-faceted machine that sets the everyday activities of us all in motion. Even those of us to whom it may not be of direct personal relevance contribute to its existence. Its boundaries are socially negotiated. The extent of the places and people included in it depends on each person’s attitude. All that corresponds to the visual design in which the photographs are framed. It is multi-faceted, untamed, unusual – like life on the street. The boundaries of each picture are as ambiguous as the frontiers of Hobohemia.
The cooperation was provided by: Petr Vašát, Michaela Trtíková Vojtková, Žil Julie Vostalová, Hana Daňková, Petr Gibas, Kateřina Bernardyová.
The HOBOhemia: The Homeless City exhibition is one of the outcomes of the research project Time and Space of Homeless Persons in a Post-socialist City: A Comparison of Prague and Pilsen (GA15-17540S). The project is funded by the Czech Science Foundation.