A man is on a mission to give homeless people some dignity – by photographing them as if they are royalty.
Donato DiCamillo set out to document the lives of people sleeping rough in the otherwise affluent seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey.
The internationally recognized snapper spoke at length with every person he photographed, learning their personal histories and how they ended up on the streets.
“They’re all human beings and they all have a story to tell, I could show you dozens of photos of the horrific conditions they are living in, but I wanted to take portraits, to give each person some dignity,” said Donato, 50, who earned global acclaim in 2016 for his candid images of fringe society in the United States.
“They were just so thrilled that someone was paying attention to them, they’re so used to being ignored or humiliated, I felt guilty, I’m not some bleeding heart guy, but I wound up putting some of them up in motels, at my own expense.
“With my photos, I wanted to show the injustice of the system.
“I met a pregnant teenager with slight autism who had nowhere to go, she’d run away from home because her father had been raping her since she was four years old, she had no one to turn to.
“What kind of sick society doesn’t provide shelter for a pregnant teenage girl with autism?”
Cape May, a historic seaside resort about 160 miles south of New York City, is known for its pretty beaches, 19th century architecture and quaint holiday attractions. But behind the million dollar houses and schooners with fluttering sails lives a community of despairing people.
Summers in Cape May are warm but in winter temperatures regularly plummet to a bone chilling 5 Fahrenheit (-15 degrees C).
“There’s no homeless shelter to speak of in Cape May, they only have warming stations so they don’t freeze to death right there on the streets. The warming stations are only open from 6pm to 6am, so at 6am they have to hit the bricks again,” said Donato, who is based in New York City but spent over a month in Cape May this winter.
“It’s a little resort for the elite, most people are very wealthy there, they don’t want to deal with these people, they want them swept away, out of sight, it’s bad for business.
“I’m from the streets myself, so I don’t find it shocking, I’m not even surprised by it, I just think it’s disgusting.
“Homeless people aren’t even allowed to put up tents in Cape May.
“If they put up a tent they have their tents ripped down, they get hassled and abused for standing in a bus station.
“The whole thing angered me.”
Sam Kelly, 74, has been an independent advocate for homeless people in Cape May for decades. He works alongside the The Branches Episcopal Outreach Center, a philanthropic organization run on public donations.
“There’s really no comprehensive program for homeless people here,” he said.
“It’s appalling, but we’ve been working to change that. Society has created this mess, society is going to have to get it fixed.
“It’s been a long hard battle to try and get these people some help, but we’re not going to stop.”
by Isla Harvey