The sad truth about homelessness is that familiarity breeds invisibility. Even the most compassionate city-dwellers are likely to get inured to the sight of someone on the street who doesn’t look like they have anywhere else to go. Eventually, everyone tunes out—you can’t save the entire street no matter how much you care, so you put up a thousand-yard-stare defense. Still, the invisibility of homelessness is also one of the reasons that people who are in that position feel like they have such a hard time being treated as human beings—people look past them, rather than at them.
That’s something that led the New York City Rescue Mission and its creative partners to orchestrate an uncomfortable experiment called "Make Them Visible." Agency Silver + Partners, production company Smuggler and director Jun Diaz developed a hidden camera set-up that had people walk past their family members, who were sitting in the street, and made up and dressed to look like they were homeless. And all of the subjects walked right past their nearest and dearest.
"There’s only one person that didn’t make it into the film—because they couldn’t handle the fact that they walked by their family," says Jun Diaz, who directed the video out of Smuggler. "It happened every time."
Participants were recruited after being told that they'd be taking part in a vague documentary about people in New York, and Diaz, who partnered with a hidden camera team, captured them as they walked to the building for their initial interview, past a loved one who was positioned there.
"One of the creatives here, Howard Finkelstein, and I were walking down a typical New York block and I commented on a particular homeless person and Howard hadn’t even noticed him," says agency chief creative officer Eric Silver of the origin of the project. "And then we talked about how often that happens and how that could even be possible. And why isn’t that shocking anymore? We talked about it some more and had a loose idea that we took to Jun (the director) and then the idea really started to take shape."
Diaz says that the hardest part of the project was actually talking with the participants, knowing that they were about to feel terrible when he presented them with the evidence that they walked past their brother/wife/cousin/etc without even noticing—and he stresses that the guilt reaction from people isn't the point of the project.
"The people were great. It wasn't about indicting anybody. It's not about the people we interviewed," he says. "They're all great in their own way; just people trying to get by in the city the best they can—but when they found out what it was all for, they got behind it. But we had to make it very clear that it could have been any of us. I'll tell you, it would have been me."
That's part of what makes this campaign so effective. Just like it could be any of us who walked past a loved one who looked homeless, it could be anyone's loved one who's actually out on the street. Reminding people of the humanity of the people they walk past every day is a worthy campaign to take on. Viewers can donate to the New York City Rescue Mission via this site, created by Reactive.