In 2000 the sociologist Rob Rosenthal published a study on public representations of homelessness (cited, for example in studies such as this one on homelessness, social work and the print media in Australia). Rosenthal’s study grouped mainstream media representations of homelessness into three loose categories: Lackers, Slackers and Unwilling Victims. I’ve been reflecting (surprise surprise) on such representations around and within the defiant manifestation of the so-called Occupy movement.
Mainstream media images of camping out en masse in the Central Business District have become ubiquitous in news from the occupations in various American cities (and indeed elsewhere), as they did when the wave of response to economic austerity measures hit the plazas of Spain earlier this year.
The camp in Martin Place, Sydney has attracted attention in the same fashion, and by the same token it has encountered – and been joined by – those who “sleep rough” in inner city spaces on a more permanent basis.
Why “sleep rough”, exposed to the deoxygenised wind tunnel that is the Sydney CBD at the best of times, as part of a collective, political statement against endemic socio-economic inequality? With Rosenthal’s study in mind, we might look at three representations of “sleeping rough” in the mainstream media:
First up is an image from last year’s Vinnies CEO sleepout, a now annual event held in Sydney to raise money and awareness for and about the needs of homeless people. This is the CEO of McDonald’s Australia, spending a night outside, in a sleeping bag on cardboard. She’s a woman with fair skin, wearing lipstick and clean clothes, eating what looks like standard soup kitchen fare: a bread roll and some hot liquid in a foam cup. The accompanying article (from Murdoch daily The Australian) is approving: suggesting she is putting herself out, sacrificing an evening’s comfort for the benefit of people who need help from those in a more fortunate material position.
Our second image appears next to a story about homelessness on the streets of Sydney, from Reuters on 6 Jan 2011. The article reports a series of grim facts about the vulnerability of street sleepers in the big city. It also, arguably, shows a fair-skinned person lying on cardboard in a sleeping bag. However, this person is marked as ‘homeless’. Unlike the CEO above, this person is not identified: in fact they stand in for homelessness, as a representative image of that phenomenon (which, any more-than-two-second analysis would show, is far more complex and less visible than such imaging suggests; and which may be better described in terms other than the morally charged ‘homelessness’).
Finally, an image of a person asleep at the Occupy Sydney camp in Martin Place. With fair skin and a beanie over their eyes, their image is used to illustrate a story by Sky News, stating that police are trying to move out “the activists sleeping rough in Martin Place”. The police succeeded in doing so and continue to represent the state in its repression of people being in public space in particular ways.
To return to Rosenthal’s study: of the three images I have described, arguably the only rough sleeper who escapes any of the three categorisations is our McDonald’s CEO.
I think this tells us something about how those who sleep rough in the inner city most nights because they have no other choice may be linked – in a crucially disparate and uneven way – to those who are choosing to sleep rough in the inner city as part of the developing spaces of ‘Occupy’.