Saturday, October 28, 2006

Filming Homeless

I guess a few street people attacked a camera man while he was filming them getting busted by the police the other day. Recently, our little town has been discussing homelessness and downtown drug use like crazy, but this new development should turn up the volume a notch. I can just see the letters to the editor that will trickle in over the next week or so, which will no doubt complain about the "culture of privilage" amongst drug users and homeless. Such violent acts, though provoked, can become symbolic of what's going on out there. Unfortunately, symbols are also gross over-generalizations, and the public just doesn't have the time to sift through the data to find out whether or not street people are violent by nature.

They are not naturally violent, in case you are wondering. Even the most hard core cocaine addict on a bad run is highly unlikely to attack. In fact, the most violent drug is alcohol, not crack, cocaine, heroin, or crystal meth, and alcohol is not used exclusively by homeless folks.

The attack does highlight the sensitive issue of filming or taking pictures of homeless people. We are a culture of documentation-- if there is an issue, we want to record it, film it, preserve it, and have at least one reality TV show about it. That gets really tricky with street people because the culture of the street says "no questions, no pictures, and certainly no bloody films about my life please." It makes sense doesn't it? These are people at the lowest point in their life. They don't want these images to be burned into their consciousness, or anybody else's consciousness. Cameras have a way of freezing people forever, and if I was going to be frozen in time, I would certainly not want to be remembered as a homeless drug user. When people are at their worst, the camera is a weapon of mass destruction.

Now the camera man might have been a bit surprised when the homeless people approached him demanding the tape. His culture tells him that the "truth" must be told, and he believes he is helping people by documenting their struggles. Perhaps the story was going to be about how difficult street life is, or a glimpse into police behaviour with the homeless. He may not see exactly what message he is sending these folks by filming them without asking. While most of us in Canadian society would be indifferent or even excited by the idea of being on the six o' clock news, these folks were not.

Cultural values are clashing between street and non-street people all the time, and it seems as though the gap is getting wider. So why is it happening, and what can we do to reduce the conflict?

These things happen because we humans are not educated about each other. If the street folks knew that the reporter had their interests in mind, or at least that his intentions were not malignant they may have been fine with the shots. If the reporter had any idea that the people he shot would be so offended, he might have reconsidered the filming. The camera man does have more access to educational materials, and more experience in dealing with humans in front of his camera, so one would expect his sensitivity. On the other hand, everybody including street people knows that violence is a horrible option which solves nothing and creates problems for everybody on both sides, so I see fault in both parties here.

I am going to make another gross generalization here, but I think it will help: street people need to be informed about who can be trusted. I don't think the press is particularily damaging to the homeless for example (another generalization) and as such, each news story that is done should be understood for what it is. Too often, reporters are seen as part of "the system," and are not trusted. Consequently, the true story of homelessness is not reaching the mainstream population with the full force that it could be. Politicians, social workers, businessmen, and other professionals all have tools for dealing with the media, and homeless people need those tools just as much, or perhaps more. Each reporter comes with a unique challenge, and street people need to know about their rights and the impact of their dealings with the media.

I will add that the press needs to be informed about street culture, which is perhaps not taken serious as a culture because of its internal diversity. Because people are homeless for so many different reasons, it is hard to quantify cultural norms of street people much less learn about them. Still, there are some basic lessons to be learned, such as how to use a camera without getting punched. I think explaining the purpose of the shoot, and clearly spelling out what happens with the film might help, for example.

Essentially, I believe conflict like this can be avoided with a bit of understanding on both sides. I hope that this incident has not tarnished anyone's view of the homeless, because like airplane passengers, there are always a few that do not handle the stress of life very well.

1 comment:

Sue said...

Hi Derek,
I am working on a new social justice site here in Victoria, and also spend time on the streets with the folks. I have a couple of questions if you wouldnt mind emailing me?