Saturday, January 28, 2012

Human Faces Installed Here

OK, I'm banging my head against an old problem of journalism: you can't move the public to fight a problem unless you can get them to sympathize with a compelling individual story. To tell the story you have to exploit someone who's hurt by the problem who has the story to tell.

They say, "put a human face on it." It means, get the public to see the problem as more than abstract, as a thing that happens to real people. For that you have to subject someone to the indignity of being a poster child.

That's problematic, no?

Yeah, yeah, I know, necessary collateral damage, don't be squeamish, etcetera etcetera.

But, so help me, I have trouble with this promo: "Photography exhibition gives voice and a face to the homeless epidemic."

Ick and double and triple ick. For one thing, people have their own voices and faces already. For another thing, "epidemic" is an ugly word to choose, implying contagion. And then the "epidemic," if any, is one of homelessness, not of "homeless". Saying "epidemic of homeless" is like saying "plague of frogs". When ferchrissakes anyway the problem is "apartments that cost too much" and/or "perfectly good housing that stands empty for no honest reason."

I'm sure the exhibition does its best to limit the discomfort of displaying recognizable local faces under a label for unpopular people. The photographer is Joe Ramos, and he's a good portrait artist. He worked in connection with Project Homeless Connect, ex-Mayor Newsom's one-stop-shop service program, which is not universally loved but, OK, does a lot of good.

[P.S. Bay Guardian writer Ali Lane says the photos and their presentation are in fact unusually respectful.]

Ick, however. "Give a human face"? Don't people always keep their own faces, no matter what else they might lose?

There was another one like this in December. The SF Chron, on the right side for once, helped shake loose $500,000 in benefit concert boodle that had been sitting unused in the mayor's office when it could have been used to house homeless families. It was to be used after all, alongside a larger gift from Benioff family of Salesforce. The self-congratulatory news story paraphrased Dept. of Human Services chief Trent Rohrer this way: "He said when [t]he Chronicle story put a human face on the city's problem of homeless families and the Benioffs offered to donate $1.5 million, the decision was made to use the fund."

Wot, nobody had noticed family homelessness until the Chronicle gave them permission to see? Really? So, OK, that could be literally true for some readers. But is it necessary to imply that real human beings aren't visibly real unless a licensed journalist "puts a face" on the faces they already have?

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