Is It Ethical to Collect Homeless People’s Signs as Art?

On the streets, a few words on a piece of cardboard can tell a life story

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Some are clever, relying on a joke to prompt a smile—and perhaps a dollar—from passersby. Others are plaintive, straightforward. They speak to the reality of homelessness—in the fewest possible words. “Mom told us to wait right here,” one says. “That was 10 years ago.” These handmade signs often fade into the urban landscape. But photographer Andres Serrano set out to change that in New York City, where the homeless population last year swelled to 64,060, the highest since the Depression. Serrano offered some 200 homeless people $20 each for their signs. The product of his efforts is a three-minute video, “Sign of the Times.” Some have criticized him for creating a slick piece of art that fails to take a stand against policies that contribute to homelessness. Serrano says he’s just trying to tell people’s stories in their own words, adding, “I’m not a crusader.” Still, he says he wants the project to have an impact on viewers: “I hope they notice the signs next time they’re on the street, whether or not it makes you give money. Maybe it does. Or maybe you just pay more attention.”

(Andres Serrano)
(Andres Serrano)
(Andres Serrano)
(Andres Serrano)
(Andres Serrano)
About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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