Humans of Basic Income is a portrait series created by photographer (and Green Resilience Project team member!) Jessie Golem. It amplifies the stories of the recipients of the Ontario Basic Income Pilot, which began in 2017 and was prematurely cancelled by Doug Ford’s Conservative government in 2018.
About 4,000 people were enrolled in the Ontario Basic Income Pilot in Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County, Lindsay and Thunder Bay. It offered qualifying individuals up to ~$17,000 annually minus 50 percent of any earned income. (Couples could earn just over $24,000 minus 50% of any earned income, and people with disabilities could receive $500 monthly top-ups.)
The pilot was designed to last for three years and monitor how a basic income could help people with low incomes meet their needs while also improving factors like mental health, education and employment.
Humans of Basic Income has been featured in national and international news outlets and has been showcased across Canada and the world. These are just a few of the photos that make up the series.
We asked Jessie some questions about Humans of Basic Income and her involvement in the Green Resilience Project.
What inspired you to create the Humans of Basic income portrait series?
I was a part of the prematurely cancelled Ontario Basic Income Pilot. When I signed up for the project, I was a starving artist with several jobs, and the pilot was the first opportunity I had in several years to break out of the cycle of minimum-wage work, gig economy jobs and start building up a business. To say the cancellation was devastating is an understatement. I was furious, and angry that a newly elected government could, on a whim, effectively change my life and kill my business before it had a chance to start. I also recognized that the cancellation would have undoubtedly devastated a lot of other people as well, and I wanted to know those stories. I remember the day after I found out about the cancellation, I was sitting with some friends and talking about what had happened when I decided that I needed to find these people and take their pictures. There wasn’t really any thought process that went into the portrait series…I was angry! I started using social media to reach out and find other BI recipients, and as I took the pictures and shared them I didn’t anticipate the impact, nor plan to produce something that would go viral so quickly. I was just angry and determined to tell the stories of everyone because I didn’t want the government to get away with devastating our lives without everyone knowing exactly what the government took away from us with their broken promises. I wanted Doug Ford to know my name, and the names of the people he took basic income away from.
What’s unique or special about photography as a medium to tell the stories of the BI pilot and its cancellation?
I see photography as one of the most powerful mediums in our age for telling stories and communicating impact. Photography has been a catalyst in storytelling for change many times in modern history. I can reference the picture of the Afghan Girl, or the picture of the Boy with the Bird, or the picture of the Drowned Boy on the Beach, and these simple descriptions can prompt any of us to remember and see those images in our brains. Photography can connect us to the story in a way that words might not as effectively. Photography inspires, evokes emotions and connects us to people and events around the world.
When I embarked on my portrait series and found myself involved in the basic income movement, I realized that the stories my photos told were different because they humanized the issue. A lot of people were talking about the statistics of the pilot – X number of people were receiving X amount of dollars – but this doesn’t connect us to the people who were affected. The portraits showed people’s faces and told their stories in their own words—these were people with families and loved ones, people with wishes, hopes, and dreams and people just trying to live their lives in meaningful and dignified ways. It made the cancellation relatable because people could relate to the stories and struggles of the BI recipients, which made the impact of the Doug Ford government’s decision to prematurely cancel the pilot felt more strongly, and condemned more strongly. It made me realize the role of the artist in any movement—and that in the BI movement, artists have a particular responsibility to communicate and tell stories, thus connecting people to the movement by creating something relatable and inspiring, challenging people to imagine a better world and striving to see that better world realized.
What drew you to the Green Resilience Project?
The moment I heard about the Green Resilience Project, I knew I had to be involved! There is an intersectionality to every issue, and when we’re talking about issues such as basic income or climate change, we have to consider all perspectives. Climate change is the biggest threat to humanity in our collective history, and if we don’t act now, our survival as a species is at risk. I believe that the most effective change happens at the grassroots level, and that communities know their own needs best. I also believe that governments are most effective when they listen to the citizens they are elected to serve. Because of these reasons I was drawn to the Green Resilience Project, and wanting to know what different communities are doing and what they need as we advance toward a net-zero Canada, and what those economic impacts will be. I think these conversations are going to be difficult and enlightening, but they are necessary to building a better world. With the threat of climate change on our entire planet, we have no choice but to imagine and build that better world, and that world will only be better if we listen to everyone, work together, and imagine courageously.
You can view the full Humans of Basic Income portrait series at humansofbasicincome.com, and on Jessie’s website.
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