The Soapbox: On The So-Called Bravery Of Immersion Journalism

“I will sleep rough, scrounge for my food, access all the services that other homeless individuals in the West End use. I will interact with as many homeless people as possible and immerse myself in that lifestyle as deeply as I can.”

These are some of the last recorded words from Lee Halpin, a British filmmaker that was found dead while immersing himself in homeless life as part of an application into a competitive journalism program. In a video recorded days before his body was discovered in a boarded-up hostel, Halperin discussed his plan to document his experiences living for one week as a homeless person, in what he described as a “fearless approach to a story.”

“It certainly feels brave,” he said, “from where I’m sat right now.”

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic— the man is, after all, dead— this tragic ending does seem a bit poetic. It reminds me of something written by J.D. Daniels in Issue 3 of  n+1: “A certain kind of intellectual wants to be a champion of the working class, as a child might see a tiger at the zoo and want to be a veterinarian. Another kind of child thinks he can grow up to be the tiger: There is a clothing store in Harvard Square called the Proletariat. Try asking the tiger what it thinks when it looks at you.”

I, for one, have trouble believing in the bravery behind “walk-in-their-shoes” journalism. Ask the tiger and they just might say they find such stunts condescending and not-brave at all. They are not only dangerous to the journalist (as Halpin’s story so clearly illustrates) but they’re also methodologically dubious, too, often resulting in misleading conclusions that solidify into hard-to-shake myths about underrepresented populations— this, when underrepresented populations are more than able to represent themselves.

Of course Halperin is not the first journalist to “go native.” The earliest and most notable example of immersion journalism might be John Howard Griffin’s 1961 experiment that resulted in the book, Black Like Me. Griffin was a middle aged white man who darkened his skin with an oral medication and exposure to ultraviolet rays in order to get to the bottom of the whole “does discrimination based on skin color really exist?” thing.

Critically acclaimed at the time, Griffin’s work is accredited with awakening a defiantly ignorant America to a truth they would have otherwise ignored or denied. The good news is that it opened people’s minds to race relations in America. The bad news is that accounts of race relations in America by black writers at that time— Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Gwendolyn Brooks, to name a few— weren’t convincing enough, and so they had to hear it from a white guy.

It’s perhaps, then, a reassurance that the results of more contemporary examples of immersion journalism have been less well-received. Norah Vincent’s 2006 book Self Made Man, based on the eighteen months she spent undercover living as a man, was criticized as degrading to individuals of all genders, transgender people in particular. Vincent was criticized even more widely for Voluntary Madness, the follow-up book she wrote to document her experiences as a patient at three mental hospitals after experiencing “psycho-emotional” conflicts as a result of the first experiment.

In this situation, as is sometimes the case, the relationship between the journalist and the population being documented was unclear. Was she an actual patient, in need of the medical care and attention she was soliciting? Or did she just need a little time off from life and figure, “Hey, I’ve a great idea for my next book!”

“Vincent should be glad that she is lucky enough not to need medication,” wrote one reader who described herself as suffering from an actual mental illness and taking the medication Vincent purported to take unnecessarily. “Instead of insisting that since she doesn’t need it, no one does, she should have enough humility to refrain from judging what she doesn’t understand.”

(It reminds me of this jerk on Vice who took a bunch of medications he didn’t need— including life-saving opiate-blockers— and then talked about how not-fun they all were.)

At worst, walk-in-their shoes journalists come off as opportunist and shallow. Lacking an authentic relationship to the community or lifestyle they’re studying, they are beholden to the obvious and superficial, often leading them to make conclusions that are factually inaccurate and ideologically driven. These resulting narratives can have the opposite of their intended affect. Rather than rendering the invisible populations as human and “just like us,” their stories accentuate the minority population’s “otherness” while serving, first and foremost, to promote the author.

This was some of the criticism of Sudhir Venkatesh’s book, Gang Leader for a Day: a Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. In reviews of the book, the author is called out for his need to distinguish himself from the people around him while participating in the very same behavior, and for making himself into the hero of the story rather than letting the real characters with authentic stories shine through. Readers questioned whether anything was done to significantly improve the situations of those studied, or if the resulting story wasn’t just voyeuristic and exploitative.

I haven’t read Gang Leader but I did read Venkatesh’s research findings on how technology was transforming prostitution, a study that sex workers universally dismissed as malarky.

When conducting my own participant-observational research on the sex industry, interviewing prostitutes and other sex workers across Europe and in the U.S., I personally struggled with issues of authenticity. A stripper at the time, negotiating between the role of “researcher” and “researched” presented so difficult a challenge that I ultimately abandoned the veil of objectivity and surrendered to the fact that my research was more about me and my own search for identity. Since my earliest attempts of making meaning of the sex worker experience, I try to avoid positioning myself as a journalist and stick mostly to speaking for myself. More and more often, I use my platform to amplify others’ voices and stay out of the picture entirely. I facilitate a nonfiction writing program at Washington Heights CORNER Project, for example, a harm reduction organization that provides direct services to active drug users. I’ve been immersed in this community for about six months, and so naturally I’ve seen and heard a lot. That said, being that I’m not an active drug user, I don’t pretend to be one to win people’s confidences— and I don’t attempt to speak on their behalf. They can tell their own stories.

I understand the impetus behind immersion journalism, sometimes also called “tourism journalism,” for all the unflattering associations that word implies. Sure, it’s well meaning— but good intentions aren’t enough. When communities of people are spoken for by someone outside the community, those populations are oftentimes not happy with what’s said, and they speak back. Hopefully, they’re loud enough to drown out misguided voices producing false knowledge— a difficult task considering issues of privilege. Many of the projects I’ve highlighted here were fully funded, institutionally backed, IRB-approved research conducted by trained scientists who’d spent months if not years on assignment— not a curious undergrad with a friend who might know someone who could introduce them to someone else. If you’re the latter (or even the former) and you’re considering a walk-in-their-shoes type assignment, Halpin’s experience suggests you think twice.

It is unclear how well Halpin prepared for the weeklong experiment that ultimately cost him his life, but what is known is that he tweeted his 1,500+ followers some days before the experiment began in hopes of borrowing a sleeping bag and an old phone. He was found in that sleeping bag, dead at 26.