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A new blog series on

I have this idea for a series of blog posts, and I’d like to run it by you for input and ideas.

It would be a series of profiles of panhandlers and other people on the street, based on interviews with them. The purpose of the series would be to help break down stereotypes by focusing on the human beings behind the outstretched hands.

From what I’ve seen, panhandlers and street people are simulaneously highly conspicuous and invisible, because people can’t help but notice them but tend to avoid eye contact with them. This series of profiles would try to play some small part in bridging that contradiction.

The way I envision it, I’d approach them, introduce myself and the project to them, and ask them if they’d like to participate. If so, we’ll go to a coffee shop, have a snack and a beverage, and they’ll tell me their story while I ask questions and take notes. I’ll take a photograph of them if they’re okay with that. And I’ll pay them for their time. Then I’ll write up the profile and post it here on the blog.

I do have a few concerns though, mostly around ethics, privacy, and exploitation. I don’t want to exploit anybody. I don’t want people to let me invade their privacy just because they need the $10 I’m offering them. And what do I do with information they might provide that could potentially put them in jeopardy? (For example, if they share information about illegal activity, and they’re willing to be identified by name and/or photograph…should I not publish that information?)

Are there other considerations I haven’t thought of?

Finally, if I do go ahead with this project, are there any questions you would like me to ask them?


28 comments to A new blog series on

  • Psychic Librarian

    Zoom… I had a similar idea recently, but in my version I would only photograph their hands (that might solve your privacy issues). I had also decided that I would ask them if I could interview them for a story (I would fully explain the project), but I would not offer them anything in exchange. If they agreed to the interview, I would proceed to speak with them on location. At the end of the inter view, I would then offer them some money. I would proceed that way so that I would feel that they had hopefully spoken to me to share their story, and not because they needed a meal or money. I sincerely hope that you go through with this project; you would do it so well and with such respect. Let me know if I can help in any way.
    I spoke with two panhandlers last night, and both cheered me up. Why? Because unlike most people I meet in my day to day running around (store clerks, fellow shoppers, people in lineups, neighbors, etc.), they acknowledged my existence, they looked me in the eye when they spoke to me, and most importantly, they took the time to speak with me. For the cynical out there, I get the same treatment whether I give money or not. I have never been miss-treated or harassed by a street person/ panhandler in 30 years of connecting with them. They have also given me some of the most heartfelt compliments I have ever received!

  • K

    I don’t think it would be exploitive if you didn’t mention paying them for their time unless they agreed to the interview, and they set the standard for level of anonymity.

    I’m always shocked and frightened by how tenuous the line between “functioning in a societally acceptable way” and “street person” is. So I find it interesting to find out the incident that had them cross that line, so maybe ask something about when they realized they were “on the street”.

    I know my experience was very tame and I was VERY lucky compared to most. But I was on the bus while we were at the shelter and looked up to see a poster of a little girl giving an oral presentation in a classroom and the poster said something like “This is the face of homelessness” and I looked down at A and T and my belly, and though “This is the face of homelessness, thank goodness no one sitting around us knows”

    I’d also like to know, if they could speak directly to O’Brien, what would they like him to know about them as individuals.

  • I really like the idea! I, too, thought that there are ways you can take photographs that show connection and emotion without showing identity, but not to deny those who really wish to be identified – I think there’s an amazing power that comes from looking the world in the face and saying “this is who I am”. There is of course a level of judgement that comes into this, in that some people don’t have the awareness to know the danger they put themselves in – but you are also not their keeper… round and round it goes ;). My first thought was to offer them the money first, no strings attached, then see if they want to tell their story – but I like the opposite better. My way might imply things you don’t mean to imply.

  • J.

    A couple of months ago, Ottawa Magazine had a series of photographs and bios of users in their magazine. I found the article to very real. If you get a chance to pick up a copy, I think it was in one of the past two issues of the magazine. It was a touching piece. I made me understand the addiction a little better than I did before.

  • stine

    I would go with first name only. I like the idea of giving them some money after the interview is over – not mentioning it beforehand.

  • sheila

    Wow. Beautiful and probably heartbreaking.

  • Mo

    I would definitely not print any information (illegal or otherwise) that could harm the individual, yourself or anyone else.

    I also there is a standard photo release form (you could obtain on the internet) for written permission to take and use someone’s picture.

    I hope this helps.

    I hate to say it but I need a Duncan photo/story fix soon! How is his diet going? I have a 13lb orange tabby that is a sweetheart (and mini-me of Duncan).

  • Kat

    Brilliant idea as everyone has a face and a story. Perhaps for some people a photo might be invasive. Why not a photo in shadow. As to what they might reveal that could be ‘shady’, I am sure I could tell you about friends that smuggle cigs. and drop mini liquor bottles in their pockets from the LCBO… yada yada, but proof is still needed. With the money, only after the interview is over. I have met street people that like to talk and then I give the money over.

  • Sounds like a great series. I too am fascinated by the stories of street people. I think you should probably not mention payment up front…

    Hey, did you see my recounting of getting flamed on a photography site for a portrait I made of a panhandler? When he came around the second time and clarified his question, I almost felt like he’d made my point far better than I could have by myself. I blogged about it not long ago, guessing you read it.

  • XUP

    I pitched a similar idea a few years ago to a local paper in Halifax with a working title of “These Are The People in Your Neighbourhood”. I would suggest not restricting it just to panhandlers, but opening it up to interesting downtown core people (or your neighbourhood) in general — the street artist, the busker, the guy who’s had the tiny barbershop in the corner for the last 35 years, the crossing guard, the characters who populate the street, etc…. and getting their streetview impressions of the city and all that encompasses, instead of making it specifically about their life/their biography. Their personal issues will no doubt arise naturally out of the discussion. Broadening the scope will make it more about a variety of different “grassroots” people and what they think — their opinions/ideas rather than their stories, per se. It may be easier to get participants, too, if they know you’re not just talking to them because they’re panhandlers, but talking to them because they’re part of the neighbourhood population.

    Also, I wouldn’t pay them. A lunch or a coffee is journalistically ethical, but a cash payment, is not — it’s strictly forbidden at most reputable newspapers, magazines, etc. I understand why you want to do it, but I think it has the potential to corrupt the exercise and not only because word will get around that some lady will give you money if you spin her a good yarn. There is the potential for a series like this to get picked up by other media, or you might even want to try to sell it in a larger arena yourself, but it couldn’t be used if they discovered you’d paid for the interview. Perhaps, instead, you could give them some extra money the next time you see them or something.

    Photos are valuable and if they’re shy about being recognized, there are many creative ways to photograph them which won’t readily identify them.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what you do with it!

  • Oh — on the model relase for photos. My understanding is that you only need them for commercial uses (i.e. advertising, etc.). Even if you were to make money from the sale of an image of someone else that you don’t have a model release for, that’s ok if it’s an editorial usage, as it would be here. If you’re not making money, I don’t think there’s any concern, especially if you asked their consent. Just my two cents…

    I want to do a similar project… a series of portraits of the people I meet at the Drop In Centre. Still haven’t gotten up the guts to ask anyone but I plan to in April.

  • PPS (sorry)you might also want to check out this artist on flickr: He also has his own website, which I think is linked from his flickr profile. I love his portraits of street, but I have no idea how much info he gives them about his work. He obviously establishes a good rapport with his subjects because he gets all or part of their life stories, but I wonder if he says he’s an artist?

  • Psychic Librarian

    You make some good points XUP!

  • I am SO glad I pitched the idea out here first before plunging headfirst into this project. You’ve all given me some excellent ideas, advice and things to think about.

    Psychic Librarian – I think that’s so cool we were thinking along the same lines at the same time…maybe we’re supposed to work together on this one?

    XUP – I got an interesting and helpful email from a journalist who raised the same cautions as you regarding the journalistic ethics of payment, as well as some other issues I hadn’t considered.

    K – you raise an interesting point about visibility. If I hadn’t known you, and if I had seen you and your children on the street while you were homeless, it would never have crossed my mind you might be homeless. Stressed, exhausted, frustrated, scared, yes…homeless, no. MY stereotype of homelessness doesn’t include children, even though increasing numbers of families are experiencing it. So if I go out in search of “homeless people” or “street people” to interview, I’m only going to find the ones who conform to my own stereotypes.

    All this leads me to lean towards XUP’s suggestion of broadening the scope of the project to include people who might have interesting vantage points on the downtown core.

    It sounds like a very ambitious project though. And it sounds like it could be a blog of its own, with a team of bloggers contributing to it.

    I’ve got lots to think about now.

  • CG, I remember seeing your photo of the man and reading your account of getting up your courage to talk to him. It was great. And I saw some reference to some controversy later, but I missed the actual exchange. Point me to it – I’d love to read it.

    I have seen that street portrait photographer’s work before – he’s a master. (I think I’m going to have the same problem as you do, with mustering up the guts to ask for an interview or a picture!)

  • Psychic Librarian

    Zoom, maybe we are meant to work on this together, because I would feel absolutely comfortable approaching anyone at all and asking for an interview and permission to take a picture.

  • CAP

    Perhaps you should consider where this may potentially lead you. Would this be something that you would want picked up by a paper or magazine that would use it as a feature in print or on their website? You should consider some of the farthest possible places this could end up and then have something explaining what you would like to do with the story and where it may end up that you could have the folks you interview sign and have a copy of. You may want to check out the American Anthropological Association’s website for info on ethical research. That may also point you in the direction of release forms. I really like the idea of putting a face to the people you see on the streets and I would love to here their stories. As someone else pointed out, I would also like to hear about how they ended up where they are.

  • Judi

    As a nurse I have cared for many “invisible” people, some homeless, some otherwise marginalized. Their stories are unique and precious, forceful reminders that they are not just very much like us, they ARE us. I will look forward to reading your posts.

  • CG – your flamer reveals himself when he refers to a homeless person as “a homeless.”

  • CAP, thanks for the lead on the ethical research guidelines. I’ll check that out.

    Judi, you’re absolutely right – they ARE us. What kind of nursing do you do? (I’ve been reading about street nursing lately.)

  • You wouldn’t need a release form for photographs… anyone in a public area is fair game in Ontario. In Quebec and Manitoba there are laws preventing publication of identifiable people, but in Ontario as long as they’re outside you can snap away… of course there can be consequences.

    I’d stay away from offering Coin as your introduction. Once you’ve got their permission to talk, talk, then ask for a photo depending on how receptive they’ve been. It mostly depends on which “level” of Homeless you decide to interview, but for the “Streeters” ask to take something “artsy”, like with their face covered or them sitting next to their sign (if they have one).

    Keep in mind most of the first-year journalism students at Algonquin College and Carleton U. almost always have to do something like this as a project… the easiest thing to do is to find the “Frontline Homeless” — the Street Punks and the dudes with the witty signs we see everyday in the same places. But then there’s the guys living under the bridges, like over by the Youth Hostel or down by the Department of Foreign Affairs who get together for lunch at the Shepherds Of Good Hope for lunch. If you want to find these “Seriously Homeless” guys try volunteering for a few lunches at Shepherds (233 Murray Street, 613.789.8210, they always need helpers and their egg salad sandwiches are fan-freaking-tastic)and get to know the people caring for them as well as the guys themselves.

    This kind of project will take a lot of intellectual courage on your part… it’s very difficult to walk up to a stranger and ask about how they got to where they are. In terms of “journalism” walking up to a homeless guy and asking about the series of tragic events which took him to that point is essentially walking up to a man on fire and asking where he got the gasoline…

    Interviewing someone for a few minutes, or maybe half an hour, will get you a fairly basic, bare bones-style story… I’m homeless because: “my parents don’t understand me” “I was [insert tragedy here] when I was nine” “someone’s keeping me down”. Everyone of the people you’ll talk to will have a tragedy of some kind in their back story but concentrating on those stories becomes voyeurism.

    And, personally, I don’t think that’s what you want to do, and it’s definitely not worth the effort you’d have to put out. To do what I think you Want to do, like finding out why these guys have fallen so far and why they haven’t been able to find the Help they need will require time, effort and getting to know Individuals.

  • Sounds like an interesting idea. One idea to consider would be to speak to a researcher who works with homeless people. He/She would know about ethical considerations. I do research in another area and certainly ethics is a major consideration, particularly when it comes to at risk populations. If you want to pursue speaking to a researcher about ethics and could use some help, drop me an e-mail at bloggingwagon(at)hotmail(dot)com.

  • Liz

    Great idea Zoom! Out my way people are doing things as well. Though not the same as your idea this link might give some ideas:

    200 disposable cameras are handed out to the street citizens and they use them to capture images of their own lives. The films are developed and the photos are judged by professionals with the results put in a calendar sold to help the DTES (downtown eastside aka Canada’s Poorest Postal Code). The top photo taker wins a cash prize. It seems to be doing good things for the DTES, getting people to take notice of themselves and their environment, and the money brought in through calendar sales helps many. You may have heard of the project already but I thought I could mention it here.

    It’s a monumental but worthy idea you are championing Zoom and it won’t be easy. TTYS

  • Psychic Librarian

    Zoom, Below is the title of a book that I read recently that inspired me – let me know if you would like to borrow it.

    In Plain Sight: Reflections on Life in Downtown Eastside Vancouver

    From the Publisher
    News stories of the socio-economically disenfranchised in North America are too often presented by the popular media to fascinate or horrify their consumers while they erase the real lives of the people “covered.” This collection of seven life stories from Vancouver”s “Downtown Eastside” sets out to create a space for a “people without history,” defined only as “a neighborhood.” These women share the stories of their complex pathways from childhood, into and out of the Downtown Eastside …

  • Gabriel – you make some excellent points, and you’re right, I don’t want it to be voyeuristic. On the other hand, I honestly don’t know if I have the time to invest in getting to know each of these people well enough to tell their stories with the kind of depth I think you’re suggesting. (Although…I’m sure it would result in a better project. Maybe I should make the time.) (And I’ve been thinking about doing some volunteer work over at Shepherds, actually.)
    (By the way – I didn’t know you lived around here. Is it okay if I move your link up to the Ottawa section?)

    Psychgrad – thank you. I’ll definitely keep that in mind if we get that far.

    Liz, I’ve heard of a few projects like this. I love the idea.

    PL – I’d love to read it – but I better not borrow it until I catch up on the current backlog!

  • I’m a few miles out of town but definitely still in the Valley, so if you’re comfortable having a Valley Blog in your Ottawa Section then so am I…

  • Alicia

    I love the idea and would stay posted for new stories about the men and women I see each day I’m about town.
    I agree with what some people are saying – mentioning the money after so the person does not feel coerced into saying more than they feel comfortable. However, it is a fairly tight community, so after a few interviews, people will know through word-of-mouth what you are doing and will come to expect the money (and may say more than they are comfortable with to get it).
    I have worked on many a University ethics application for working with vulnerable populations and the standard with them is to give the “incentive” regardless of whether someone participates or not. In the case of taking someone out for coffee – whether or not they agree to officially be interviewed, they still get the coffee. Now of course, this is done with projects that have operating budgets. But… tis how I have seen it done.
    Good luck with your project!