Wearing a sailor shirt and a winter jacket, with tired eyes from a lack of sleep and a cigarette hanging from his lips, Martin Besson doesn’t have the look of a Parisian. At only 20 years old, he already runs a website. Two and a half years ago, when the crisis of information was in full swing, he created 'Sans A_': a "pureplayer" which tells the life stories of homeless people through photography. Thanks to his smooth talk and determination, Martin quickly recruited 80 volunteers to help with the project, raised funds, and captured the attention of 5,000 readers.
The daily reality is a little less rosy, however. On the heated terrace of a café, he lists the never-ending stream of tasks that need to be done: "Meeting after meeting is required to make the even most basic of decisions." There is a need to find a business model; to manage egos; to change status from that of an association to a business; to respond to 70 emails. "It is complicated, but we believe in it," he says assuredly as he looks for a lighter to relight his cigarette. And it is with that same conviction that, before his first beer of the day, he meets with cafébabel to tell us about the project that now occupies almost all of his thoughts.
cafébabel: At 18 years old, what made you say to yourself: "I will create a media organisation for the homeless"?
Martin Besson: One day when I was 17, I was walking down the road, when I saw some homeless people. I stopped to talk and have a cigarette with them. So, I was already a little aware of the homelessness issue. Then after having passed my professional baccalaureate, I decided that I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. It’s all well and good to have the baccalaureat, to spend time playing video games, but if there is nothing more to your life than that, it isn’t very interesting and you most certainly aren’t doing anything for the greater good. So I said to myself, "I will spend a week on the streets, living like a homeless person." Ultimately a week became a day because it was extremely tough, and it was at that point that I understood what the homeless needed: to be visible.
cafébabel: How was it tough?
Martin Besson: You are sitting on the pavement freezing in a middle-class neighbourhood, you don’t have any cash and you see people talking about their evenings, their lessons, etc. You feel a great deal of frustration. People don’t look at you or look at you as though you are worthless. But in the end, you say to yourself that they look at you like that because they don’t have any time to spare. Why would they be interested in a homeless person?
cafébabel: So the aim of 'Sans A_' is to do just that?
Martin Besson : Indeed. I said that we must make them visible because many stereotypes about homeless people stem from the fact that we don’t know their stories. If we knew their stories, we would go and talk to them. They would no longer be just a down-and-out, but Jean-Claude, Jean-Marc, Sophie… someone who has a story and a past.
cafébabel: Do you remember the first homeless person that you interviewed?
Martin Besson: Yes, of course. It was something of a wake-up call. The interviewee told me about his journey and it made me realize that anyone can become homeless.
cafébabel: There are not many people who would stop to talk to a homeless person, not out of indifference, but because they are a little intimidated. What happens in general when you approach a homeless person?
Martin Besson: Often they are quite surprised. Sometimes they take it badly when we tell them that we are journalists, because they think: "Ah, they only come to see us when something bad has happened." But afterwards, we explain our process, and they have fun.
cafébabel: And how does your media organization differ from traditional media organizations?
Martin Besson: In general, they talk about statistics and they have a production imperative. We also want to talk about statistics, but first and foremost, we want to tell a story and take the time to do so. Recently, 'Sans A_' started to seek out people in all sorts of precarious situtions because ultimately, the problems of the homeless are visible: when we’re walking down the street we see them but we don’t talk about people who are living in poverty, ill-housing, we don't talk about problems associated with disability and ill health… We have chosen to examine these problems, all of which are interconnected, to promote awareness and to encourage people to take action. 'Sans A_' isn’t a militant media organization, but it is a committed one, which believes that we need to talk about the root causes of these problems.
cafébabel : And what do you hope for when you publish an article?
Martin Besson: What is interesting is that it inspires readers to interact with the homeless. For example, Brigitte told us that after her feature, lots of people came to see her in the street and her sister-in-law contacted us. So you see, it shows the power of social networks, of what happens when we do some good. There are also people who say to us: "Thank you, thanks to you my outlook has changed." And that is terrific!
I can also read you the message that Samuel – a member of 'Sans A_' – sent me the other day: "Sometimes, there are things that reaffirm your faith in this job. Yesterday evening, I had a coffee with Caroline. Caroline is the ex-girlfriend of Pierre, a former barman that I had interviewed a few weeks earlier. She hadn’t heard from Pierre until she read the article yesterday evening. The tears came streaming down her face, and it confirmed to me that our work wasn’t all for nothing."
cafébabel : Do you expect much from policy makers?
Martin Besson: No, not at all. I am very removed from all of that. And I don’t fancy 'Sans A_' being reclaimed by a politican because together with our readers, we are managing very well. For 30 years, businesses have been doing incredible work to tackle these issues, it is a significant amount of time that politicians have been aware of such issues, but they are incapable of changing things, we see it right now with the labour law…
cafébabel: You no longer want to use journalism as a means to bring about change?
Martin Besson: You can’t be an activist when working in media, it doesn’t work. You cannot do activist work and afterwards say "hello, I should like to talk about..." It isn't our job to be objective.
cafébabel: Yes, but isn't the journalism that you practice a form of social action?
Martin Besson: Yes, but it isn’t activism. However in the future, we will do less. We will throw ourselves into alternative journalism. We will interview someone who will tell us: "That is my dream" and, with the help of our readers, we will endeavour to realise these dreams. The readers will be free to get involved as much or as little as they wish.
cafébabel: What sort of dreams do people who are in precarious situations have?
Martin Besson: It is difficult to generalize. Take Serge for example: his dream was to open a café for homeless people. Emmanuele, she wanted to meet her favourite singer in Barcelona. They all have desires and different ambitions. But when we interviewed them, they are just happy to tell their story, to talk and to share. They hope that it will bring about change.
cafébabel: What sort of change?
Martin Besson: For homeless people, they hope that people in the street will look at them with more respect, that they will be paid attention to. For disabled people, they hope that we will recognise that they have a lot of struggles and that we will fix these problems. There are plenty of things… But what we try to to do is to bring happiness, some positivity into their lives by telling their story. And if thanks to that, we manage to convince two – three people, that is great. If we manage to convince more, all the better.