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.
Image by Michael Hili
This post originally appeared on VICE Australia
One of my tasks at VICE Australia is managing the generic VICE email. If you've emailed us in the past couple of years you were probably talking to me. Sorry if I didn't write back; we get a lot of emails. For the most part it's actually a pretty nice corner of the job. I get to have semi-anonymous conversations with strangers, read a lot of cool articles from new writers, and hijack all the sweet invites to open bar events before anyone else in the office sees them. I'm also the person who looks at the bulk of the photo submissions.
Sometimes they're awesome, and sometimes they're not. But hey, no judgment—being good at shit is hard. Over the past year or so, however, I've noticed a disturbing trend that seems to plague the best and the worst of them: taking pictures of homeless people. I don't know what all these people saw that made them believe taking a picture of some dude having a bad time is art, but 99 percent of the time it's lazy and beyond lame.
Street photography is a tricky balance between being an artist and being a creep, and it's something that even the best shooters in the world struggle with. 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.
To be fair, the people who send in photo essays that casually feature these shots probably aren't trying to be assholes. At least I hope they're not. I assume they either think they're being edgy or poetic. But it's not at all edgy—it's lazy. You're not creating some sort of outsider art by taking a picture of someone less fortunate than you. You're at best a passive observer and at worst a predator. It's a way to shortcut your own experience by hijacking someone else's. A picture of a homeless person says one thing: "I am an asshole."
If you want to make a statement about the state of public health care, mental health, affordable housing, or abuse, then do that. Spend time with people, talk to them, have an agenda and a message you formulate yourself and commit to it. That is interesting. Taking a picture of a dude passed out in a park isn't telling; it's annoying.
In conclusion, if you believe your shitty art requires you to take photos of homeless people in order to capture the world #unfiltered or whatever, don't send it to me.
Illustration byMichael Hili.
Follow Wendy on Twitter.