New York City, NY

Why This Blind NYC Woman Has a Sign Around Her Neck

NYC x BK

This is what New York City is like, today, in 2021: Wherever you go, people will ask you for something. Go to your favorite coffee spot, and someone will ask you to watch their laptop while they use the restroom. Go to your subway stop, and someone will ask you for directions. Go down almost any avenue in Manhattan, and someone will ask you for help.

When someone asks you for help in New York City, they are usually asking for money. However, if you offer them food instead, they will likely accept your offer. No matter how you feel about the homeless situation here, there is no denying that a problem exists.

And yet, because it's so commonplace to see a person asking for help, it's easy to ignore the problem. You can simply look the other way.

A hundred years ago, the city had a different approach to dealing with people who needed help. Known as peddlers or beggars back then, we would call these people panhandlers today. To be a beggar on the streets during the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s), you would need a license.

That's why the woman in the photo above is wearing a "blind" sign around her neck. Just above the sign is her license number. She is allowed to beg or peddle in New York City. Or rather, she was allowed, when she was alive, back in 1916, when the photo was taken.

An American photographer named Paul Strand took the blind woman's photo. It's an arresting image with complicated implications. Being blind, the woman probably didn't know that her photo was being taken. Furthermore, Strand used a special technique to capture the blind woman. His camera had a trick lens with a side-angle mirror, allowing him to photograph his subjects while facing away from them.

Imagine if panhandlers today were required to obtain licenses before asking for help on the streets of New York City. If they wore signs around their necks, would you be more likely to feel compassion for them? Or would the signs only serve as visual cues to look the other way?

Usually, the panhandlers you see these days do not appear blind. They see you. They talk to you. They ask you for help. Their problem isn't blindness. Their problem is not being seen. And perhaps that was the same problem the blind woman had a hundred years ago.

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