Photos by Kyle West

At Supercrawl this weekend, Hamilton photographer Jessie Golem brought an interactive, human face to the premature cancellation of the universal basic income pilot project through her photo exhibit Humans of Basic Income.

Ten portraits of individuals whose lives had been radically changed by the premature cancellation stood outside Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts on James Street North. Several recipients of the basic income pilot sat in front of the photo display, sharing with passersby their own personal experiences.

Universal basic income was introduced as an experimental pilot project by the provincial Liberal government in 2017 in order to sustainably reduce poverty. Four thousand eligible people from Hamilton, Brantford, Brant County, Thunder Bay and Lindsay received monthly basic income payments to help cover living expenses and improve quality of life.

Golem started the Humans of Basic Income project to humanize the issues associated with cancelling the project through the power of visual storytelling. Prior to this weekend’s exhibit, the photographs only existed online. Golem used Facebook and Twitter to share the photos.

Part of what made the Supercrawl exhibit unique was the ability to have face-to-face interactions with basic income recipients.

“[It’s about] taking what’s a political issue and putting a human face to it and saying, well these are the people that are being affected,” Golem said.

The exhibit explores how basic income gave some people the freedom to pursue other passions and interests. Margie Goold, one of the volunteers at the exhibit, was able to take a digital camera course at Mohawk college, an opportunity she wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.  

Basic income also allowed Hamilton resident Lance Dingman to pay for his prosthetic leg. This allowed him to save up funds for prosthetics that he will need in the not so distant future. Most importantly, basic income gave Dingman the autonomy to live his life as he chooses.

Basic income for me has given me the life that I have been striving a long time [for], to make it better, to make it richer, to make it more independent for myself,” explained Dingman.

The original intention was to continue the project on an experimental basis for three years and then assess its effectiveness. However, the Ford government cancelled the pilot program in July and announced that payments will stop at the end of March.    

Through the photographs and experiences being shared during the Supercrawl exhibit, the narrative is consistent. A premature cancellation of the pilot project threatens to uproot the lives that it had helped people to build for themselves.

Recipients made life-changing decisions based on the expectation of receiving monthly payments for the entirety of the pilot program. Scraping the income will lock individuals into leases they can’t afford and disrupt their studies at colleges and universities.

Furthermore, recipients that applied for other sources of financial support on the understanding that they would be receiving basic income payments, are now stuck in between assistance programs, with no certainty about where their financial support will come from.

Lynn Ridsdale, another volunteer at the exhibit, notes that high living costs in Hamilton made universal basic income even more important. In particular, basic income helped her to find suitable, accessible housing, despite the steadily increasing cost of rent in Hamilton.

As Hamilton’s arts scene attracts investment and development, living expenses rise and many can no longer afford to live in Hamilton. New cafes, galleries and condominiums wipe away the visual signs of poverty in the city, and the bustle of Supercrawl makes it easy to forget about the consequences that come alongside the city’s development.

Golem hopes that the project will help continue the conversation about poverty.

“I don’t want this conversation to die down and just become another political issue…I want people to think about the conversation, think about what poverty looks like,” explained Golem.

The Humans of Basic Income exhibit brings Hamiltonians face to face with the reality of what it is like to navigate life in the city while experiencing poverty. The exhibit’s photographs, media reach and real-life interactions at Supercrawl have created a platform for Hamilton residents to share their experiences with the community at large.  

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