The Happiness Project

8 February 2019 Katherine Smyrk

The Happiness Project

It’s a row of doughnuts behind a glass case. The icing is shiny, sprinkles perfectly sprinkled. Marcus, a Sydney vendor, felt his name being called by the sweet treats (especially the chocolate ones), on display at his local chicken shop. He took a snap on a disposable camera, to document all the good things that come to mind when he thinks of his “happy place”.

“They are simple things,” he explained. “They are my weakness! They make you happy because they are sinful. Nothing special, you just get a nice doughnut.” Among other things he snapped: a train line that gets him around the city to where he needs to go; a nameplate affixed to the door of the room he’s called home since 2008. “I walk in and then think yeah, I’m home. And then I don’t care about anything else on the outside.”

Marcus’ happy snaps are part of The Big Issue’s Happiness Project in recognition of #VendorWeek. There are 110 publications in 35 countries around the world that are a part of the International Network of Street Papers (INSP), and from 4-10 February we will all be celebrating the people at the heart of what we do: our vendors. For this special edition, we handed disposable cameras to 11 vendors from around this great big country along with a brief: take photos of your happy place – whatever, whoever, wherever that may be.

The results were more detailed, moving and nuanced than we could have hoped for, and really challenged the notions of what a happy place can look like.
It doesn’t have to be a tropical paradise, a dramatic vista, a person sitting in the lotus position while puppies and rabbits frolic at their feet. It’s much more straightforward, and all the more special for it.

It’s a rescue cat called Dizzy. Trevor, who sells the magazine in the Blue Mountains, met his neighbour Sandy through the cat. Sandy has become an important part of Trevor’s life, a big support when he was recovering from a heart attack, and he and his wife look after Dizzy when Sandy goes on holiday.

“Dizzy is a rescue cat and it took a long a time to win over that trust,” says Trevor. “But he’s a great cat. He cuddles up to me and everything. I see myself in Dizzy, a little bit.”

It’s a piece of art, blu-tacked on a bathroom door. Stacey, a vendor and artist from Perth, photographed her bright painting of the word “Believe”.

“It means believe in yourself, no matter what. I see it every day – every time I go for a shower, every time I go to the bathroom to splash water on my face. It’s there as a reminder, because I’ve been through some dark times, but there are brighter times coming.”

It’s a song, a son, a soft light. It’s a guitar, leaning against a wall. A path that takes you home. Or a little trolley, loaded with Big Issue magazines, set up on the inner-city streets by Sydney vendor Rachel T.

“Being a vendor is my happy place,” she explains. “I’m not a mum, I’m not a welfare recipient, I’m not a sick person – I’m Rachel T the vendor and I’ve got my own little office. I’ve had so many knockbacks in life, but it inspires me to get better because I can put into something. It’s not much, but I’m doing something.”

It wasn’t all straightforward, sending out 11 budding photographers and requiring them to take publish-worthy snaps. Shooting on film rather than with digital cameras or phones is something now foreign to most of us. Some of the prints we got back were obfuscated by a wobbly hand or bad lighting, but it was almost all the better for it. They told a story; it’s like you were following along behind the vendor as they documented their day. It’s clear, even in the unclear pictures, that a lot of thought had gone into their artistic choices.

“It was good because it made me actually think about what makes me happy,” says Melbourne vendor Daryl, who captured the rain-slick streets around where he sells, the people and shops that have become home to him.

Rachel T found it harder than she anticipated: “I was trying to work out, what is my happy place? In all the assignments I’ve been given from The Big Issue I’ve never had one that was so hard. The fact is that no matter how hard life is, your happy place is whatever you make of it and that’s what I wanted to try and show.”

It’s a familiar concept, the happy place, but it’s not often that you stop and consider what it would be, for you. It’s not often you stop to take a photograph of it, celebrate it, give thanks for it. They aren’t always the most photogenic, the most glamorous, the most thrilling, but they matter. Happy places, they are simple things.


» Katherine Smyrk (@KSmyrk) is the Deputy Editor of The Big Issue.
» With help from Michaels, Melbourne.
» Find out more about INSP and #VendorWeek at – and turn over for our vendors’ photos

» This article was first published in Ed#579.