Reporting and exploitation

Monday, 15:00

Today wasn’t unproductive. But as to whether I got anything concrete done… it’s contested, to say the least. A couple of conversations prompted me to spend a lot of time pondering a question that must have crossed the minds of most journalists: is there always an element of exploitation implicit in reporting? Is it always a question of one side, either the interviewer or the interviewee, being exploited by the other?

I thoroughly believe that the reasoning my project ‘Legacy Dogs’ is strong, justified, defensible. I want to tell the stories of those excluded by society. I vehemently reject the idea that a string of poor decisions — or even a single decision — should mean that an individual’s story, and personal value, become irrelevant. I hate the idea that someone sleeping rough is suddenly a rough sleeper and nothing more, and whether they were born in Scotland or worked in Iran or had a large family ceases to matter, because all that we should care about is that is that they’re bad people in a bad position and it’s their fault and they should be punished.

But I am worried that these profiles I’m writing are not actually holistic, three dimensional images of real people — that instead they’re just slightly more sophisticated caricatures. Up until recently I hadn’t considered the necessity of using a voice recorder for an interview, and I don’t write shorthand, meaning that when I reconstruct a person’s voice it is inevitably pressed and filtered through my own artistic license. With that in mind, how am I being true to the people I wish to represent? I choose what to emphasise, what to included, how to present it, and maybe, how to phrase it. Is that a representative piece of work?

This came to the fore last week when I interviewed Tommy (not his real name). Tommy’s is a regular face around my area of Cambridge: slightly drawn, unassuming, undemanding. If you maintain eye contact for long enough he’ll ask for a bit of change, but if you’re busy, impatient, or withdrawn, he’ll self-consciously fade into the background. I happened to pass him and I asked if he’d tell me his story over a bacon and egg sandwich; he agreed, we went to a cafe, we got started.

And he told me bluntly about his troubled relationship with alcohol and heroin. I sat there, listening, and was struck by a real sense that this was not my story to tell. None of these stories were mine to tell. What right do I have to convert someone’s hypothermia-soaked suffering into a quirky anecdote about piss-laden hot water bottles? If I don’t have the right to do that, I most definitely don’t have the right to offer up the specifics of someone’s personal struggles with heroin for recognition on social media.

These ideas are in obvious competition for space with a more optimistic, rational side of me. I don’t press people on details they don’t want to talk about. I tell them I’m a journalist before we start talking. I make sure they’re happy with the broad themes that I’m going to talk about before I write anything. And I recall how animated Charlie became when he told me about Iran; how the years fell away when Fal told me about Preston; how John cackled when I asked about his time as a ‘squaddie’, etc etc. The conversations themselves are a period of healing with intrinsic value, I tell myself. I believe it, for the most part. But sitting down to write about Tommy I recoiled from writing anything overtly personal, and I’m only planning on telling the bulk of his story if I do a larger piece on addiction in the city.

And then, as if to challenge myself completely, I had the flip side of the coin occur to me. I’m worried that I’m being routinely exploited by someone that I’m trying to interview.

Allan is a busker. From the sounds of it, an incredibly committed busker. Not only does he play a relatively limited set for 12 hours straight — midday to midnight — but his pitch sits in the middle Cambridge’s main strip, as it were, so a signficant portion of the day is spent catering to resisting the town’s drunk population.

He’s a sweet guy. I approached him one evening with Joss, my friend working as a photographer on the project, and we got talking about where he was from and how the night was going. Allan was reluctant to talk in detail about his life there and then, so we agreed to come back the following evening. Fair enough. But when we parted, he asked us if he could borrow a fiver. After an awkward pause we cobbled together a few quid, and went on our way for the evening.

Joss had spent time in Beijing and had experience with street photography. His philosophy was that you should never pay a subject to be photographed (nor interviewed), because it would change the dynamic of your relationship. Their story becomes commodified, and there’s a chance that they would shift to what they were saying to ‘please’ the person paying. I agreed. We also agreed that there was a difference, however, between approaching someone unknown and giving them a couple of notes to say ‘look nice for the camera’, and fishing around in our pockets for some loose change to hand somebody in need after talking to them for a bit. So the money question was pushed aside for a moment .

The following evening we met Allan again. I’ll write his story up in detail later, but the upshot is that a strong sense of distrust came up as we were speaking. Allan’s first words were “I’m nervous”, and he seemed to be constantly trying to guess what the ‘aim’ of the talk was. At the end, after an illuminating and hopefully trust-inspiring half an hour, Allan said that he’d worked it out. “You want political opinions right,” he asked. I said that I was interested in what he thought about general questions about homelessness, sure, but more interested in his story as an individual. He accepted it thoughtfully. But again, the final question: “you couldn’t get me a tenner could you?”, and again, an almost sheepish search for coins to help someone that needed help.

I saw Allan again today at the arranged time to speak in more detail. He said that it wasn’t a good time. I asked why; he said he’d just rather speak later. I said fine. I was tired of chasing people that didn’t want to talk to me. The conversation ended — perhaps predictably — with another request for money. I couldn’t see any way to say no, nor a super compelling reason to do so, so I went to the cashpoint and took out a tenner for him. Allan instantly zipped up his guitar, thanked me profusely and cycled off, saying that he’d definitely be back at 7 to talk properly.

I’m not worried about the loss of a tenner. I think I spent about 8 quid on lunch alone today, so that’s not really a concern. Nor am I worried about perpetuating his homelessness with this money, or enabling a drug habit or something. I guess my concern is about the nature of the relationship. Am I ‘buying’ his story? Or, equally, is he simply going to ‘perform’ in front of me in repayment for money?

This may all change this evening. Maybe Allan was truly in a pickle, and my ten quid helped him out. Maybe he gives it back. Maybe we meet up and he now trusts me enough to share the particulars of his story. I’m not sure. But as of right now — 15:48 — there’s a slightly unsavoury taste in my mouth on both accounts, and I’m not sure that I’m treading a truly empathetic and supportive line with this work.

Monday 22:24

Just got back from meeting Allan. At the end of the session, which was deep and cathartic, he paused.

“I don’t want to say this just because we’re doing this talk. But I really, really need 20 quid. It’s the difference between sleeping on the streets and sleeping in a house tonight.”

He looked at me. I’d already paid him 10 quid during the day. I said that I didn’t get paid until the start of the month, and I gave him what I had — a fiver. But it got somewhat tense when Joss wouldn’t give any money. He said that his wallet was at home; Allan said Joss could take his bike to ride and go and get it. “Where’s home? Is it far?”

After a bit of a back and forth, Joss stood firm. “We are helping you in other ways.”

“So you’re not going to get it? If you want to be friends, this is what friends do. They lend each other money. I’ll pay it back. I’m good at paying it back.”

It was awkward and tense, and it cemented the concerns in my mind. At the end we had a bit of strained small talk, and then we said goodbye to a clearly despondent Allan. Maybe he was bitter.

So the question remains in my head. Is exploitation a necessary part of reporting? Is Allan just making the best out of his situation, before I commit his story to paper and ultimately exploit his experiences for my own profit?