Why I decided to visit streetpapers
I think I first decided to make a kind of alternative trip talking to people on the fringes of society when I learned that there was a network of streetpapers scattered across Europe. For those of you who do not know what a streetpaper is, here we go: It’s a magazine produced for people in need, to sell on the streets at a profit. As an example, at the Big Issue, registered vendors buy the weekly magazine from depot points for £1.25 and they sell it to you Joe Public for £2.50.
(Now, as I have already spent a not insignificant part of my life explaining the streetpaper concept to people, forgive me if I direct those with any further enquiries to a good infographic and/or the International Network of Streetpapers.)
I’d spoken to over 70 vendors of the Big Issue magazine across the UK, all of whom had some experiences with homelessness, so I knew that if I visited these sister organisations across Europe I would quite easily have access to the groups of people I was interested in meeting. Those in society with few options, basically. The long-term unemployed, the legally invisible, the illiterate, the ex-institutionalised, the addicted, the homeless. Additionally, while the streetpapers themselves perform a limited function when it comes to helping these people access services like shelters and legal aid, I knew they would definitely have all the local contacts. If I wanted to put a picture together of what it meant to be a homeless person internationally, then the streetpapers would be a good place to start.
Another factor was the type of conversation I wanted to have with the people I met. The majority of UK Big Issue vendors I spoke to were in a good place; making an effort to find their own solutions to personal situations, and in many cases were considered as part of the community in which they lived. This meant that in these interviews I wasn’t talking to the vendors as a ‘homeless’ person but as someone who successfully sold a magazine on the street. It might sound like a small distinction, but it isn’t. It changed the nature of the interview entirely – it gave me the freedom to ask the questions I wanted to about their lives, their likes and dislikes, what they thought about stories in the headlines, the area in which they lived, as well as asking the more difficult personal questions without making them the focus of the interview.
Magazine vendors are also independent of the organisation – not employees of the streetpaper or charity beneficiaries, they did not ‘owe’ the company anything, and so people spoke freely. Sometimes too freely! But most importantly, their words were not influenced by any sense of obligation and they did not feel that they had to represent themselves a certain way. That’s what I liked. I felt that from these conversations, I was able to convey the interviewee’s personality as well as difficult experiences without inducing feelings of guilt or pity from the reader.
And it was exactly this kind of painful reaction I have no interest in producing. I was reluctant to use the word ‘homeless’ at all at first, in relation to this project. That’s why I went for Marginal Issues. Not only does the H-word reduce the problem to a matter of housing, I was also aware that the stigma attached to it extends far beyond the act of walking past someone on the street. No-one really enjoys reading about knotty problems with few obvious or easy solutions. We’d all much rather read about the 17 Reasons Sugar Pig Is The Cute You Need Today. Homelessness turns people off, massively.
Also, I have to admit that I felt a little bit weary every time I read a press release of a project (photography exhibitions being a favourite medium) geared to ‘raising awareness’ of homelessness or ‘breaking down the homeless stereotype’. It’s not that I think the goal is not worthwhile, rather that I think that too often an unintended byproduct of these projects is to replace one stigma with another. Many of the people with experiences of homelessness I have spoken to have no room for pity in their lives.
I don’t really want to raise your awareness of homelessness, to be honest. I want you to wholeheartedly engage with the idea of it again, and feel energised to come up with new ideas to an age-old problem.
So that’s why I decided to visit the streetpapers.