Since I became a journalist 10 years ago,
I’ve had three dozen needles poked into my arm over two
days, lived homeless for a year, stolen cars, hopped freight
trains, panhandled and had the crap beaten out of me more than
once. Through dumb luck and willfulness, I’ve wrung
stories out of murderers, drug dealers, politicians, movie stars
and thieves. The best preparation for this rough reporting: my
training as an actor and a hard-earned ability to hold my
Gay Talese, the godfather of
immersion journalism, calls what he does better than anyone
“the art of hanging out.” Rather than
interviewing people who do stuff, get to know them and do the
stuff they do. But if you’re going to immerse yourself,
forget the line between subjective and objective.
You’re going to become subjective. The important thing
is to be as non-judgmental as possible. This will allow you to
hang out with anyone, get the story, then write it to the best of
Contrary to logic and what you
may have learned, preliminary research is not always an asset.
When I moved into Tent City (an area of Toronto inhabited by
squatters) in 2001–’02 to write a book, I
knew nothing about the place. This was foolish, but no amount of
reading or interviewing could have prepared me for a spot
populated by con men, drug addicts, fugitives and brilliantly
brave vagabonds — an anarchistic community where the
rules changed nightly and your life depended on knowing them. In
fact, my ignorance was an asset: I was less scared than I should
have been, and the need to figure things out fast became an
integral part of the story. Also, my missteps led to discoveries.
When I showed up in the freezing November rain with a tent on my
back, a large woman named Jackie, with a huge smile and giant
rottweiler, took mercy on me and invited me into her wood
stove-heated shack. It hadn’t occurred to me that there
would be women and dogs, but not a single tent in Tent City. I
abandoned the tough-guy act I’d sharpened, and started
building a shack instead.
When I gave myself
carbon monoxide poisoning from the kerosene heater I’d
scrounged and put in the tiny, airless home I’d built,
it was Jackie who pulled me out. And when I got beaten up by guys
with two-by-fours on Christmas Eve after bringing pizzas
I’d acquired to the wrong shack at the wrong moment, it
was a pregnant woman named Karen who saved me and took a hit to
the belly at the same time. The next day, a car thief recruited
me as his partner in exchange for watching my back. In this messy
way, I figured out how to get close to people, who I could trust,
when to resurrect the tough-guy act, and how to collect stories
among the rats, drugs and mud.
there’s no need to be quite as foolish as I was to get
the scoop. Mostly what it takes is adaptability and endurance.
Roll with what’s happening, and stick it out as long as
it takes. But know that sometimes the story is in your screw-ups.
Which brings me to a tale I’ve always wanted to tell,
the fruit of immersion journalism.
A few years
ago the fifth estate asked me to go into
Toronto homeless shelters with a hidden camera. They were doing a
documentary on homelessness and I was the obvious choice; I had
already spent time in shelters.
are not as state-of-the-art as one might think. I tucked a large
tape recorder into a fanny pack (de rigueur
for small-time dope dealers the world over), out of which
sprouted a number of wires winding up my torso to a camera the
size of a large cigarette pack. The camera was taped to my chest
underneath a cheap hoodie. The sweatshirt had been chosen for its
emblazoned logo on the front, which would both support the weight
of the camera and distract from the cigarette-burned camera eye
hole in the sweatshirt (singed in the offices of the
fifth estate with the end of a cigarette which I then
smoked the rest of). The trickiest part: the batteries only
lasted a few hours and the tapes had to be flipped over every 40
minutes. My fanny pack was bursting and I had to inconspicuously
coordinate tape and battery refreshments.
of this came to a head during the first snowstorm of the year
when I was hanging out in the Fort York Armoury, a very temporary
and particularly disconcerting shelter for the homeless. The
interior of Fort York is like an enormous airplane hanger,
divided in two by a camouflage curtain; on one side Canadian
soldiers were doing basic training, marching with machine guns
and rifles, while on the other, several hundred homeless were
hunkered down on blue plastic mats. It was a less than stable
environment — crackheads getting itchy and loud beside
baffled soldiers jumping to attention.
only bathrooms were down two flights of stairs, and by midnight
I’d gone there twice to switch tapes and check my
batteries. I was ready to change my recording equipment when two
cops strode in with snow on their shoulders and a real sense of
purpose. The guys I’d been talking to made themselves
small on their blue mats and I felt like something was going to
happen. I waited a moment, then got up slowly to proceed to the
bathroom. There were plenty of other people standing around. I
walked towards the stairs that led down to the bathrooms and had
nearly made it when a voice called out. The sound of boots
thundering across the floor followed and I ducked into the
Flying down the stairs, fumbling
with the tapes, I could hear them yelling for me.
“Stop!” But all I could think was Tape, tape!
I took the next stairwell, ran into someone coming out of the
bathroom, and as the cops tackled me I stuffed the fanny pack
down my sweatpants.
They dragged me back up,
but instead of pulling me into the light of the armoury, they
pushed open another door, and suddenly we were outside, alone in
the dark, snow coming down. They seemed mad. Considering my
running and fumbling with the tapes, this was understandable. But
as they pinned me against the wall, one of them started barking
about a guy who’d been grabbing people in the subway
— a guy who looked a lot like me.
“So why you *&^$*&$
In response I was
babbling; all I could think about was the impending anecdote to
be repeated for years in newsrooms and press clubs: Did
you hear about that idiot in Toronto? Shaugany or something
— a freelancer. Got beat up by the cops while wearing a
hidden camera and there wasn’t any film in
As one of them grilled me, the
other started to pat me down so I figured I was safe: my cover
would be blown and I’d explain it all.
But just like that, he was done.
“Where were you tonight!?” the other
said for the 10th time. I didn’t know what to do.
Reveal my chest, wrapped with tape and wires like a bomb? Cry
journalism and give it all up?
“Why’d you %$*@*&^
“Uh….” And as I gasped
for something to say, a message came through on their radios: the
subway grabber had been grabbed.
escorted me back into the fort and left me there, blinking under
the bright lights. Sure there was no tape in the camera, but I
still had my cover — and also a great anecdote:
Did you hear about the cops who searched that idiot
journalist wearing eight pounds of camera, recorder, wires and
tapes — and they didn’t find a thing? I just
had to find someone to tell it to.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall’s work has
appeared in Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, Toronto
Life, Saturday Night, Toro, the National Post and The Utne
Reader. His book Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in
a Big City Shantytown (Random House) was just published
in Australia and New Zealand.