Through the doorway: ex-Big Issue vendor exposes life on the street with striking artwork

Drawing on her experience of sleeping rough, former Big Issue seller Bekki Perriman has created an art installation that will stop you in your tracks. The Doorways Project encourages shoppers, students and office workers to stop and hear a homeless person’s story in their own words.

The recordings are currently playing in doorways and alleyways in Glasgow, offering a window into the lives of people who are experiencing homelessness. They’ve previously engaged passersbys in London, Edinburgh, Brighton and Liverpool.

Doorways to the past. Bekki's photos show places she used to sleep or sell The Big Issue. Photos: Bekki Perriman

“That’s why I wanted to do it in public spaces,” Bekki says, as she takes INSP on a tour of the exhibition, “because I didn’t want an art audience, necessarily. I wanted an accidental audience, so people just walk past, hear a voice and are intrigued to listen.

“I wanted to particularly catch people who would never stop and listen to someone who was homeless.”

To collect the interviews that would become the backbone of the artwork, Bekki had to force herself to overcome her own natural shyness. “I was absolutely terrified doing it, because I’m so shy I found it so hard. But it was really surprising only one person said no, and I’ve interviewed 14 people.”

The installation is the evolution of a photography exhibition Bekki created to explore her own experiences of sleeping rough and selling The Big Issue in London in her teens. In the original show, each photo showed a doorway where Bekki slept, or was moved along by police. They are places where she made and lost friends, or where she sold a copy of The Big Issue to radio DJ Chris Evans.

“While the doorways are the places where these things once happened, they also act as a metaphor for the experience of homelessness, being on the outside and literally shut out,” she says.

Bekki became homeless as a teenager and started selling The Big Issue in London at aged 16. Becoming a vendor gave her life structure and was a way of making friends when she was alone in the city.

Photos: Bekki Perriman

“I got to know a lot of the other sellers quite well,” she says, “generally people are supportive of each other.”

Bekki has now been creating art from three years. Her work focuses on issues around mental health and homelessness. She wants to challenge viewer’s perceptions by presenting personal stories and experiences of people who are stigmatised in society.

The inspiration to create a sound installation came when she saw Susan Philipsz’ Surround Me: A Song Cycle for the City of London, which featured recordings of the artist singing traditional folk songs and was played in locations around the city.

“It was seeing her piece… I was walking down one of the alleyways near St Paul’s Cathedral in a blizzard and there was just this beautiful folk music playing in the street. That made me think about doing a sound piece in public spaces about homelessness, with not quite so much beauty,” she says.

Bekki takes an unsentimental approach to her work. The Doorways Project is a sobering spotlight on the cycle of poverty that can trap homeless people, but the stories also contain their own beauty. Struggles with mental health and problems with housing associations and councils are common themes, as are the importance of friendships on the streets, and the kindness of strangers.

The project has had mixed responses from audiences. “It varies from city to city,” Bekki says. Though watching audiences engage with the piece when they come upon it by accident is always rewarding for the artist.

Photos: Bekki Perriman

Still, there was one audience that Bekki admits she had not considered – people who are currently experiencing homelessness. “I guess I’d kind of been thinking of it more of like an awareness sort of thing, and getting people who had no understanding of homelessness to actually stop and listen,” she explains.

It took a chance encounter in Brighton to open her eyes to the potential. “There was a guy who was listening to a recording with his blanket and a dog,” she recalls. “I went over and he said, ‘I stop and listen to this interview every day, I’m addicted to heroin and I relate to this story so much.’ That just really made the project in Brighton for me: that he was actually stopping and listening because he could identify with it.”

Though the response has been predominantly positive, there has been some hostility towards the project. Bekki says it comes from “members of the public who are always hostile towards the homeless anyway.”

After Brighton paper The Argus covered the exhibition, the responses from the public were “horrific”. “People wrote things like ‘they should just ship them all out’, and ‘why is someone making entertainment out of this’.”

Bekki responds with the same resilience that has allowed her to sell street papers in London, and to become a successful artist from a background of homelessness. Rather than let negative reactions deter her, she smiles. “I was going turn [their response] in to an art piece, which I thought was quite funny.”

The Doorways Project is at Tramway, Glasgow until 25 September. Read more here.