BY: QUENTIN STUCKEY
Recently a friend of mine asked if I would be willing to help her on a university paper she had to write. In post secondary education there always seems to be strength in numbers; we always like to help our friends with whatever assignments they have. This friend of mine had to write a paper for a course called Homelessness In Canadian Society, examining the struggles a person consumed by poverty would encounter on a daily basis. The paper required different types of media sources, which depicted homeless people in their natural environment. The most obvious representation of poverty as a form of media is conducted through photos and videos. The amount of videos online which showcase a homeless man or woman as part of a social experiment or a face to face interview is actually quite staggering.
In fact, if one were to go on YouTube and search “homeless experiment” over 682,000 results are generated. Photographers also have a habit of using homeless individuals as subjects for a photo series, attempting to capture something real or artistically gritty. There is nothing disgraceful about taking photos or videos of these homeless people with their consent, the main objective often being to raise awareness of the implications of poverty to influence change.
Unfortunately, many of these videos and photo series are often created without the knowledge of the homeless subject, as if they are stripped of basic humanity because of their living situation. They are also created for all the wrong reasons, with artists attempting to seek online validation or hits at the expense of these people and their dignity. The videos on YouTube which depict real life homeless people are almost guaranteed to attract millions and millions of views. We sit there and watch these videos unfold, feeling guilty about our comfortable lives while forgetting that the footage was most likely recorded without permission.
Homelessness is an unfortunate element of a metropolitan society that is largely talked about but also largely ignored. It’s understandable why the homeless are common subjects in art projects and social experiments. Due to the lack of income and poor living conditions, these people are presumed to lack basic human expectations of privacy or anonymity. Many photographers don’t even bother asking the homeless person if they can take their photo. YouTubers often don’t consider letting the homeless person know that they have or are about to be part of an experiment. Using a person’s less than ideal living situation isn’t always mere artistic expression, it’s a form of exploitation. Profiting off of their misery (whether financially or artistically) unbeknownst to them.
Wendy Syfret, a writer at Vice, stated it best in her article Stop Taking Pictures of Homeless People: “It’s no secret that a lot of the time you’ll get a better photo of an unusual or amazing thing if the subject is unaware. But homelessness isn’t unusual or amazing. It’s not a surreal moment in time that you can capture and use to illustrate that the world is a brain-splittingly cruel place. A dog in a backpack is odd, and a person living on the street is a reality for millions of people.”
Homelessness in any community is an alarming problem, one that cannot be fixed over night. Although many artists wish to bring attention to these people by documenting their struggles, this is only ever appropriate if the proper permission is granted. Without that consent it is nothing more than exploitation. It sends the message that these people’s rights matter less because of what they’re currently going through. Would we want someone to take our picture without our knowledge or consent? Neither would an individual who is fighting every day to survive.