HOBOhemia: The Homeless City

The urban machine
A city can be viewed in different ways. Many contemporary social scientists liken the city to a machine that contains bodies, materials, and even symbols and rituals. In this kind of urban machine what’s important are not just the things on the surface but also the things that are hidden or on the margins. One could say that a city contains within itself many other cities that are (in)visible to different degrees and to different people. Hobohemia, the ‘homeless city’, is one such city. In the early 20th century in the United States, the term Hobohemia was used to refer to places with a large concentration of hobos, urban tramps.

Hobos in the Czech Republic
The term ‘hobo’ refers to a person who practices a specific form of tramping, the first form to be that was historically associated with industrial cities. Hobos were the first urban form of homeless people. Wage labourers working to build the railways in the summer, urban poor in the winter. Like the American hobos, Czech homeless people today 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 to urban peripheries as well. The population of Czech homeless people is estimated to be 70,000, or 200,000 if individuals at immediate risk of losing their home are included. Most homeless people are found in Prague (there are about 4,000 homeless in the city, although some estimates claim there are as many as 8,000).

Hobohemia through the camera lens
How can one get to see the ‘homeless city’? The best way is the way it is seen and experienced by homeless people themselves. The photovoice method is an ideal instrument for this. Several dozen homeless people in the Czech Republic were given cameras and took pictures of a day in their life and of the places they went and spent time. This gave rise to a unique collection of over two thousand photographs showing how the homeless move around the city and how they relate to places and other people. This exhibition presents the images of ten of these authors, who share in them their Hobohemia. Three of them are women and the other seven are men. They ‘reside’ in different places. Some spend their nights under a bridge or in a squat, others in hostels, in institutions, or at friends’ places. Six of these people currently live in Prague, the others come from Pilsen. Each of their photographs not only documents the ‘homeless city’ but also conveys the emotions related to it – some positive, others negative. The photographs depict places associated with suffering and physical violence as well as places that indicate friendship or an enjoyed moment. The experiences of the photographers vary widely but also have much in common.

The power of photographs and the stories they can’t tell
Photographs are never innocent. They always produce specific effects – relating to both emotions and power – and say something specific about the photographer or even an entire group. For this reason we have included the photographers’ stories. In these stories, we present the past and present of these individuals, but especially the process that brought each of them differently to their current situation. We attempt to contextualise the photographs historically and socially and emphasise the political-economic dimension of homelessness, focusing on the historical perspective, the role of culture and meanings, and the general role of the market. The different stories are thus able to tell us about the everyday repression faced by homeless people, the pressure on individuals’ to perform that is so typical of today’s global market, and the 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 all of us in motion. Even those of us who have no direct connection to it 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 of this is reflected in the visual design in which the photographs are framed. It is complex, untamed, unusual – like life on the street. The boundaries of each picture are as unclear 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.