When he started cutting hair for people experiencing homelessness, Joshua Coombes found a way of making a difference by doing something he loved. Now, in collaboration with artist and friend Jamie Morrison, he’s expanded his viral social activist campaign #DoSomethingForNothing into an exhibition series to highlight the plight of isolated people around the world.
Joshua Coombes may not have ever lived on the streets, but he knows what it’s like to feel hopeless. His first brush with disappointment came as an adolescent. “I went to a shitty school,” he explains. “All the teachers were probably underpaid and tired, and [when you don’t do well in your exams] you can leave feeling a real sense of failure.” For a time, Coombes found solace in music, spending six years touring Europe and the UK with various punk bands, but when this eventually came to an end, he returned home feeling aimless and disenfranchised. “I spent about a year in a dark place,” Coombes admits, “there were days where I felt that everything sucked, and I didn’t really know what to do anymore.” He shrugs matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t anything that drastic, but you know what pain is like, it can put you in a bit of a spiral.”
This interview was produced by FvF in collaboration with TOMS as part of their Stand For Tomorrow program, which focuses on local social impact projects, in collaboration with the people and non-profit organizations working to promote dignity, equality, and community action.
As human beings, we’ve all felt pain at one time or another, which makes it even stranger that as a society we can be so callous when it comes to deciding whose suffering we choose to pay attention to. This is never as evident as when talking about the homeless—just last week a wealthy neighborhood in San Francisco raised tens of thousands of dollars via crowdfunding to oppose a homeless shelter that was planned in their area. For Coombes, this kind of behavior is only possible due to an “us and them” mentality. “If you flip the word ‘homeless’ to ‘homed,’” he says, “we act in a bizarrely different way to people around us.”
“I know a haircut is fundamentally not going to change the world, but the idea spreads.”
What ultimately turned things around for Coombes was the help and encouragement he received from other people. “It was just those small things,” he says. “Other people giving enough of a shit to smile at you or talk to you for a minute or two.” It’s something he would remember when, three years later, and with a hairdressing apprenticeship under his belt, he got talking to a homeless person on his route from work to a friend’s house and offered him a haircut. After talking for an hour, something clicked for Coombes: “When I learned more about his story, I was buzzed. I immediately wanted to go out and do it again.”
It was after Coombes started posting “before and after” photographs of his sitters under the hashtag #DoSomethingForNothing that the project really took shape. “I came up with the hashtag because the more that I did this, the more I realized that the time I was giving and the conversations were the most important thing,” he explains. “There were a few weeks where I was thinking, well, these are vulnerable people and I don’t know whether Instagram or Facebook is such a good platform for this kind of thing. But I would say to everyone I met: ‘Look, the stories I’m hearing are dissolving all these stigmas about people who live on the street’ and they were happy to be part of it.”
Within months, Coombes was receiving hundreds of emails from people who were looking for a way to get involved in the project. In response, he came up with a strategy where he asked people to write down three things that they love doing and three causes that they feel passionate towards and try to join the dots. “My emphasis was on never discounting even the smallest idea,” Coombes says. “I know a haircut is fundamentally not going to change the world, but the idea spreads.”
And the idea has spread. After a couple of years of, as Coombes calls it, ‘turning half opportunities into full ones,’ in order to keep the project going, last June, he teamed up with the artist and musician Jamie Morrison to organize what would prove to be the first in a series of exhibitions using creativity to shine a light on social issues. Titled ‘Light + Noise,’ the first edition took place in L.A.’s notorious Skid Row. “It’s such a shit show there,” says Coombes about the roughly 50-block radius in downtown L.A. that’s become synonymous with the Californian homelessness epidemic. “And I mean that in the sense of mentally knowing what the best thing to do is when you walk through so many humans in such need and such pain, and I think that art almost feels like it’s the obvious choice.”
“The biggest thing I’ve learnt, as cheesy as it sounds, is that we’re all way more similar than we think.”
After their success in Los Angeles, ‘Light + Noise’ continued with one-night shows in the London districts of Brixton and Dalston. As with the earlier exhibition, the duo collaborated with local artists making socially engaged work, with all proceeds from art sales going to the people featured where possible and otherwise to local charities focusing on isolated communities. For Coombes, the premise for the exhibition series is simple: “It isn’t to say here are some cool photos or pictures of some people,” he explains. “It’s not trying to be voyeuristic. It’s just about trying to say, ‘I think these people are as important as anyone else,’ and the more we can change people’s opinions about this then maybe we can have some ideas about how to therapeutically transition people from the street to a better life.”
In 2019, Coombes was chosen by TOMS as a “changemaker,” which has allowed him to organize further iterations of ‘Light + Noise’ in four cities across Europe. In each city, Coombes and Morrison connected with the community, artists, and a local non-profit organizing arts programs for isolated people. As well as funding the exhibition series, TOMS also made a contribution to each non-profit. In many ways, the tour has been an extension of Coombes practice of giving haircuts. Whether Manchester, Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin, each exhibition starts with Coombes and Morrison taking two or three days to walk through the city and talk to the people they come across. “I flip into this mode of like, the only goal now is connection,” says Coombes, “and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but everything is off, my phone is on do not disturb, and I’m walking around being open to people.” The more experiences that Coombes has like these ones, the more he realizes that we are all alike: “The biggest thing I’ve learnt, as cheesy as it sounds, is that we’re all way more similar than we think. Before I saw it as a belief I had as a liberal person, but now I feel like it’s a part of me as an experience I’ve had, which is much different.”
A vital part of the project is that in each city, Coombes and Morrison attempt to invite the people who feature in the artwork to come to the exhibition opening. It’s not always easy, as the lives of homeless people can be very transient, but when it does work out it’s an excellent opportunity to increase homeless visibility within the general public. “When people actually come in it’s interesting,” explains Coombes. “In Amsterdam, Eelco was part of the video I made, he’s on the wall in Jamie’s paintings, and he’s also right here, which really solidifies what this is. He lit up the room; everyone chatted to him. And that goes a long way to do exactly what we came here to do—which is actually give everyone like him a little bit more connection to society again.”
Now on the last place in the tour, Berlin, Coombes is able to reflect on what has been accomplished. Asked to pin it down, he sees accessibility as being the most important thing that ‘Light + Noise’ has provided. “People ask me exactly what vision I had for this, well for me it’s really, really simple,” he says. “I need people helping out creating change in a bigger sense on a policy level and all that stuff, but accessibility is the biggest word I always use: to be able to provide access to more people to be able to see someone. I don’t give someone a voice because they already have it. I don’t give someone their dignity because, to me, they already have it. I stand for dignity in a huge way in everything I do, but all the people I meet they’ve already got it. It’s only other people’s behaviors that suggest they haven’t.”
Joshua Coombes is a London-based social activist. The #DoSomethingForNothing initiative has seen him travel the world exploring homelessness and human connection. Together with the artist Jamie Morrison, he created the exhibition format Light + Noise to amplify the lives of isolated people.
Give Something Back to Berlin is a project platform and network fostering community integration, intercultural dialogue, and participation among Berlin’s diverse migrant populations.
Text: Chloe Stead for FvF Productions
Photos: Aimee Shirley for FvF Productions, and Mikey Huff.