Over the last few weeks, I worked on a portrait about Big Issue vendors in Birmingham. Here’s the result and feedback is as always very welcome.
Julian must have been selling quite a lot of magazines during the twelve years he’s been working as a vendor in Birmingham, on and off. Even more people passed by, for various reasons: Some don’t have the time to stop or simply don’t want to purchase a magazine in general, others worry about where their money is actually going or were put off by a certain behavior.
@franzibaehrle I always feel terrible walking past BI sellers without buying one. I suppose I'm not quite sure where the money's going and—
Jessica Abrahams (@jiabrahams) May 14, 2012
@franzibaehrle sometimes BI sellers claim "Oh it's my last copy so do you mind just giving me some money w/o taking it?"—
Jessica Abrahams (@jiabrahams) May 14, 2012
@franzibaehrle I don't buy it but don't really know why. I guess I don't know what's in it and it's a habit to just say "no thanks"—
Robyn Bateman (@robynbateman) May 23, 2012
Janet Bentley (@AppsAgonyAunt) May 14, 2012
The Big Issue is sold by homeless people and those suffering from vulnerable housing. This may often be linked to an assumed tendency of being involved in drugs, or living from the tax payers’ money, as the vendors are mostly getting benefits from the government, too. Cases like the one of Big Issue seller Firuta Vasile keep feeding that image.
Julian doesn’t want to have that image.
“Where I came from in life, I never thought my life would come to this.”
Due to illness, he had to give up his job as a ground worker, lost his flat, got involved with drugs while living in a hostel and lived on the streets for three years. The Big Issue helped him to start over again.
The local Big Issue office in Birmingham is covering a large area over the West Midlands, even trending to the Welsh border, with 124 sellers (March 2012) and about 4500 sold magazines a week. Some vendors keep selling for a long time, e.g. due to problems finding other work or simply not taking the chance to go a step further.
The organisation’s aim is however not only to offer a job, but even more to be a stepping stone for self-improvement. This is supported by the Big Issue Foundation and at best leading to personal success stories.
The vendors have to buy their own magazines for £ 1,25 each, selling them for £ 2,50. There’s a new edition every week, every magazine a vendor doesn’t sell is 1,25 £ loss for him. When getting benefits, they have to claim their income/hours at the job centre. Some even pay taxes.
The area is split in different pitches, every vendor has to apply for a pitch – on a daily or weekly basis – choosing between morning and afternoon shifts. To get a particular pitch, vendors have to buy a certain amount of magazines.
Buying magazines, applying for a pitch, shifts, claiming income – sounds like a proper job. Still, selling the Big Issue is often not perceived as one, vendors often struggle with a rather negative image.
But it’s not all bad – there are still a lot of people buying the magazine, as well as positive feedback. When asking vendors about an incident that’s still stuck in their mind, it’s also often a positive one:
Most vendors sell the Big Issue because they need the financial support, as it’s hard for them to live just on the benefits, says Tom Belte, area service broker at the Big Issue Foundation in Birmingham:
Vendors like Vernon and Dina are examples for why the Big Issue isn’t just a financial help.
Vernon suffers from mental illness and is, due to that, unable to find a job. However, for him the Big Issue is mostly a kind of therapy, to get out of the house and communicate with people.
Dina has been selling for six months now and not been able to work for almost 11 years, due to suffering from severe anxiety and depression. For her, the Big Issue is a financial support, but most of all, a mental one:
All the Big Issue sellers share their job, but do have different backgrounds, circumstances and aims. Some represent the type of person they are often said to be, others are suffering from that image. Some may not enjoy selling the Big Issue, others see it as an important part of their life:
What’s your opinion about the Big Issue? Do you buy it? Did you have a special experience or know a certain vendor/his background? Share it in the comments.