Privacy is hard to come by when you are homeless. With no where to go, you’re on show to people walking past you all the time. Its not always safe to go somewhere more hidden. But lately it’s the not-so-smart phone photographers who are causing complaints, alongside other media outlets.
People experiencing homelessness are among the least empowered people in our community. Stigmatised and vilified, they are easy fodder for sensational media outlets and blamed for factors outside their control. It's important to hear alternative voices.
Many people who are homeless really do want to tell their story, and are prepared to sacrifice privacy to raise awareness of the bigger picture.
The do worry though, that a focus on individual detail can risk misdirecting us to only look at the person, and not at the systemic drivers of poverty and disadvantage.
Respect and consent should be the foundations for fair media use, especially by those trying to help out on homelessness. We can all point to some really positive examples, but there are also some really bad examples you probably won’t hear about, where the damage has already been done.
It’s important to be aware of the risks of putting the limelight on highly vulnerable people. How would they cope with a backlash or extra attention?
For example, this week one homeless man found his photo and location used by a major newspaper in an article referring to “homeless ice addicts”, despite clearly refusing to be in the photo at the time. They had already taken his photo while he was sleeping. He told me he had since been abused, so much so that he now made a sign saying “I am not an ice addict”.
Care also needs to be taken because so many people who are homeless have experienced deep personal trauma that is very painful to discuss.
Consider these questions:
- has genuine consent been given?
- is the person well equipped to make that decision at the time that they are being asked to do so? (ie could they be substance affected or otherwise not able to fully understand the implications of the decision they are being asked to make, potential backlash, both now and in the future?)
- have you explained fully how and why any material is being used, and for how long, and how they can contact you if they change their mind? Do they understand how social media works?
- have you kept unnecessary identifying information out of the story including not showing faces, revealing locations or names, or has this option been offered?
- how important are names, faces and street locations to the overall message? Can the same outcome be achieved without compromising privacy?
- When requesting information and photos, has the request been framed in such a way that strengthens an individual’s opportunity to simply decline without explanation?
When it comes to members of the public, there are some very bad behaviours. “Nobody asks first,” said one man who is homeless on the streets of Melbourne. He’s not begging and lives a quiet life. He’s a talented artist and musician.
"People change when they look through a lens. They forget manners. I'm not an exhibit. I'm a real person" he told me.
Many people I’ve spoken with have also complained that they don’t feel in a position to say no, especially when the request is accompanied by the offer of food or a blanket. Often times the “request” comes as the photo is actually being taken.
Sometimes people will sit by them perhaps with the intention of providing company and conversation. But this almost always involves explaining their homelessness.
“They say they want to learn. But I’m not here to educate. And my life story triggers bad memories. It’s not stuff I want to share, but it feels like I owe everyone an explanation. Maybe I do. I don't know any more,” this confused and weary homeless man tells me. He doesn't want his name or face shown.
The worst of all behaviour is when people get in the way taking selfies with an unconscious homeless person when our street outreach teams are performing CPR on the pavement. Hard to imagine, but it happens.
Chairman, Youth Projects
16 August 2015