More and more lately I’ve been seeing pictures of homeless people on my various social media feeds, taken by well-meaning but ultimately misguided photographer friends. In fact, I see them so often that it’s beginning to seem like a new trend. The intention behind these photographs may be to shed light on the devastating situations of New York’s homeless population; to help “give a voice” to a marginalized group, or to attempt to humanize the people we are all guilty of mindlessly walking past every day. But regardless of the motives, the result is not a positive one.
I’ve had this conversation several times over the past week or so with other students, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. Lizzy Faire Cassidy, a freshman at the New School for Drama, says that “taking pictures of homeless people makes them look and feel like freaks,” and I couldn’t agree more. They’re just people, but taking and publishing their photos makes it seem like there is something inherently different about them. By singling out a stranger on the street, taking a picture, and posting it on social media so all their friends can see what a good, caring, socially conscious person they are, these photographers are, in the end, exploiting their subjects for their own personal gain.
I think there are two main issues this phenomenon brings up. The first is the relatively recent trend of “social media activism.” Now, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about people who use social media as a place to incite real change; I truly believe that people can do incredible things by taking to the Internet, but that’s an issue for another article. What I am talking about is the sect of people who post about sociopolitical issues because it’s the “cool” thing to do, but do nothing in their off-screen lives to actually work toward change. Posting photos of homeless people feels exactly like this kind of pseudo-activism. A photographer gets to feel good about himself for doing a good deed without actually doing anything to help anyone, and then he gets the validation of all his friends “liking” the image in support. After this, he can go on his merry way while the person whose image he used remains in the same position as before, in no way better off because of his actions.
The second issue is related to the idea of “giving people a voice,” raising the question of who gets to speak for marginalized groups. For instance, I personally don’t feel incredibly comfortable with the idea of a person who is not and has never been homeless speaking on behalf of the homeless community with no consultation or cooperation with the people who do belong to that demographic. The same goes for any marginalized group, whether it be white people speaking for people of color, straight people speaking for the LGBTQ+ community, or men speaking for women. Of course, activism is much more effective when more people become involved, but there is a difference between being an ally and dominating a conversation; if you are making yourself heard by silencing others, you’re not doing it right. Wanting to help is not the same as wanting to be in the spotlight, and at the end of the day, a Facebook photographer doesn’t have to bear the burden of homelessness.