Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York
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My years writing articles had taught me a significant lesson when it comes to interviewing people: ask somebody a series of questions and all you will get back is a series of answers. Answers to question are rarely that interesting or insightful. The experiences and insights that lead people to give the answers they do are much more interesting. Plus, with the topic of homelessness I felt like most of the questions had been asked and answered 1000s of times, and largely did little more than play on urban myth or confirm existing stereotypes.
Another problem I have found with interviews is that when the interviewee is aware of the things that make them interesting, they often give you what you want to hear. Sometimes this is because they want to be more interesting, but it can also be out of a sense of wanting to help, to be useful, to not waste your time. They want to help you get what they think you want.
Interviews where the subject considers himself or herself a character, and many of the homeless in New York I had met did indeed consider themselves characters, make for poor interviews. To be aware of your own character means you have identified some individual characteristics that you think make you quirky and interesting. This often results in people highlighting and projecting these identified characteristics, and making a conscious effort to live up to them. The second you begin editing and highlighting character traits in order to influence other people’s perceptions of you you have become a fiction. There is nothing less valuable to a writer than interviewing a fiction.
Of course I knew I wouldn’t be able to avoid asking some questions, but I wasn’t actually looking for any answers. I wanted to follow, and as simply as I could record the lives of the homeless in New York as they went about their business.
As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.
“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused
“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC
“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out
“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw
“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro
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