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An ongoing photo exhibition in Tokyo illustrates a burning desire of people living on the streets: to simply build normal relationships with the rest of society.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Human Rights Promotion Center currently displays 42 photos of the homeless, taken by freelance photographer Hideaki Takamatsu, who began the project out of curiosity about how the homeless live.

Takamatsu started shooting photos of the homeless in 1994, when he attended a photography school after graduating from college with aspirations of becoming a photojournalist.

He said he was shocked to see a line of cardboard boxes where homeless people lived at the busy Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. “To my surprise, people with business suits walked on by without paying attention to the homeless.

“I tried to take their photos as part of a school assignment, but I realized they would never allow me to do so unless we reached a mutual understanding,” he said.

They wanted to know who he was and also wished him to know who they were before getting in front of his camera.

Since then, Takamatsu has met many people who live on the streets, eaten with them and photographed them. One such homeless person came close to committing suicide and another ran away several times from a hospital where he had been put under protection.

Of the photos on display, half are black-and-white images taken up to 2000. They depict the harsh living conditions of the homeless, with one photo showing a man rummaging through leftovers outside a restaurant.

Takamatsu said he accompanied the man to the restaurant several times before he took photos of him.

“While these photos reflect the general and conventional public image of the homeless, I tried later to use a different method to bring out their individuality,” Takamatsu said.

He had them strike various poses to make them aware that their photos would be seen by other people and to shoot color photos to attract more attention.

Hence, the other half of the photos on display are in color. He calls it a “collaborative work” between himself and the homeless.

Takamatsu said that some of the homeless people he photographs are paid to be vendors for Big Issue, a magazine established in 2003 in Japan to provide homeless people with work.

“As they stand on the same corner of a street regularly, they get acquainted with passers-by who also regularly walk the street,” Takamatsu said.

“One (homeless man) married one of his frequent customers, while others have become involved in counseling young people,” he added.

For the human rights promotion center, meanwhile, the homeless problem is a regional challenge. Takamatsu’s photos, it said, give the public a glimpse into the lives of people they otherwise seldom would have contact with.

The facility is located near the Sanya district, known as a source of manpower for civil engineering and construction projects where there was a lot of cheap accommodation during Japan’s postwar high economic growth period. Many day laborers there saw their jobs dry up following the burst of the “bubble economy” in the early 1990s, and they ended up homeless.

There have been recent reports of local young people harassing those living in parks or riverside areas.

“We expect the photo exhibition to make the public more aware of the homeless and promote social inclusion,” a center official said, referring also to a new type of homeless who spend their nights at Internet cafes or fast-food shops.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government indicates the number of homeless in Tokyo’s 23 wards gradually declined to around 780 as of January since peaking at 5,800 in August 1999. But the entire picture remains unclear.

The admission-free exhibition is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and runs through Nov. 29. For further information, call the human rights promotion center at 03-3876-5372.

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