Addressing disparity, Jana Sophia Nolle reconstructs homeless shelters in the living rooms of the wealthy
Focused on San Francisco, the series also deals with issues such as socio-political shifts, housing shortages, exclusion and gentrification.
- Ruby Boddington
- 9 September 2020
When artist Jana Sophia Nolle arrived in San Francisco a few years back, she was, like many people, struck by the clear and shocking disparity in the city between rich and poor. “What I witnessed was a city full of contrasts – so much wealth against a backdrop of very visible poverty and homelessness,” she recalls. Building upon her academic background in political science and anthropology, which she studied at SOAS in London, Jana began approaching and interviewing homeless people, documenting their lives and improvised dwellings. The culmination of this work is Living Room, a series realised between 2017 and 2019, unpacking themes that Jana continues to explore in her practice today.
Based in Berlin for the most part and originally from Kassel, Jana is an artist whose practice sits somewhere between research, observation and documentation to produce photographic projects, videos and installations. Often her projects begin with a personal experience or social phenomena, and with her academic background, “most of my work is influenced by methods of scientific research and conceptual photography,” she explains.
This was certainly the case with Living Room, which manifests as a photographic series but which is a project characterised by performance as well as social research. The series documents temporary homeless shelters recreated from materials found on the street and erected in the living rooms of wealthy San Franciscans.
The concept emerged from an observation of Jana’s: “The different ways that homeless people live and survive on the streets of San Francisco was fascinating and shocking to me at the same time. I was shocked by the very high number of homeless people and at the same time I was impressed by their various improvised dwellings, how people without a permanent home create some sort of temporary protection out on the sidewalk – using all kinds of found materials.”
Jana spent a lot of time with various homeless communities across the city, taking photos of their shelters, their lives and also collecting “handwritten diagrams, descriptions, letters, lists and notes provided by the people themselves”. This aspect of the project acknowledges something she heard again and again in these communities – that unhoused people often feel invisible. By creating an “index” of these gathered materials, Jana goes some way to addressing that issue, giving a voice to those she encountered during her process. “The index functions as a bridge, adding post-facto context and developing the project’s sociological anthropology, allowing the unhoused participants, their humanity so often ignored, hidden and cast aside, to be seen,” she says.
It was during the early stages of the project that she developed the idea of reconstructing copies of their shelters in fancy living rooms. “My central question was how to capture the contrast between rich and poor, using photography, sculpture and performance,” she tells us.
The images in Living Room, once you discover the concept, make for somewhat uncomfortable viewing. They are shocking in their absolute juxtaposition of worlds – of rich and poor, of transience and comfort. Jana describes the series as an inventory, “a typology of improvised dwellings, cataloguing their various attributes”. She adds that “while aesthetically striking, the photographs also deal with larger issues of socio-political changes, housing shortages, exclusion and gentrification, which resonate far beyond San Francisco.”
Since 2020, Jana has been looking at applying the framework she created in San Francisco to Berlin and Paris, off the back of her research into the state of the unhoused populations in both cities. “How do wealth and poverty look different in the major cities of Europe as opposed to the United States? What distinguishes the personal living spaces of Europe’s financial and educational elite? How do structures created and materials used by unhoused people here differ? What about their needs? What are the similarities and contrasts?” These are all questions she aims to explore. The project as it stands was also published as a photobook by Kerber Verlag back in July, which you can order via Jana’s website. And Jana has several exhibits in the works, the first opening on 19 September at Torrance Art Museum in LA.
Reflecting on Living Room, Jana tells us: “I think for most Americans, homeless people are barely visible, somehow on the edge of our vision in most urban areas. They are ‘The Other’, not us. My intention is for Living Room to open up people’s hearts and minds so that they can make better-informed decisions. My hope is that it will cause people to reflect, that it will create empathy and initiate a human connection. Perhaps people will feel invited to take action, however small it might seem, or at the very least to recognise some part of themselves within ‘The Other’.”
GalleryJana Sophia Nolle: Living Room, San Francisco (Copyright © Jana Sophia Nolle, 2017/18)
Jana Sophia Nolle: Living Room, San Francisco (Copyright © Jana Sophia Nolle, 2017/18)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.