‘The Debt Project’: 99 portraits of American debt
One of the many hard truths the pandemic has brought home is that financial hardship is only an emergency away for most Americans. In 2013, photographer Brittany Powell made the decision to file for bankruptcy and the experience prompted her to begin shooting a series of portraits of other Americans who faced substantial debt. Her personal experience, inspired by the “We Are the 99%” slogan that came out of the Occupy movement, prompted her to start the Debt Project, an exploration of the role debt and finance plays in 99 different lives and in the nation as a whole. Powell’s respectful representation of Americans dealing with financial adversity comes as the poverty/opportunity field grapples with similar issues of representation and narrative. Powell spoke to Spotlight recently about her work; the conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Tell us how The Debt Project got started
I lived in San Francisco for almost 17 years and I started my photography career and was a freelancer for about ten years. I had a fair amount of success in a lot of ways during that time – I worked for National Geographic, I shot for different editorial clients. But it was still kind of a financial struggle living in the Bay area because it was such an expensive part of the country. When the 2008 economic collapse happened and so many publications went under, I got laid off after finishing a project that I was on, and I was really underemployed. I wasn’t unemployed, but underemployed; I started teaching surfing lessons and trying to cobble together work and it just became this dance of debt eventually. I was having trouble paying rent and I was putting groceries on my credit card and really just doing this kind of juggling act. In 2012, I made the decision to file for bankruptcy, as I was thinking about going back to school and I really didn’t think the way I was living economically was sustainable. In doing that, I just got really interested in the process of how we relate to debt, how we think about it. I was in grad school, so I decided to start this project. It started on a really small scale and was mostly me just talking to people about debt and realizing it was something people didn’t really talk about. I had all these friends who, unbeknownst to me, had all this debt and it was clear that talking about it was really important, given that there’s so much shame about the topic. Even student loan debt or medical debt, things that are societally enforced in many ways.
The first 10 or 15 people I photographed were people that I knew directly or indirectly and then I decided to try to expand it and I started a Kickstarter campaign with the idea that I would photograph 99 as a nod to the Occupy Movement, (“We are the 99%” was the movement’s slogan) which I thought was a really important awakening in terms of focus on income disparity. I liked the idea that 99 was a very symbolic number and I thought that I could get across the country and get a good sampling that way. Though, 99 people is a lot of people to photograph! It was a very ambitious goal and took a lot longer than I thought it would, just because of time and funding and life. I ended up photographing in 22 cities and it took me about seven years. I got grants along the way, and a lot of it was funded through Kickstarter or personally funded. But I kept chipping away at it over the years. The majority of subjects, other than the first 10 or 15 and final 10 or so were strangers that I found through Craig’s List or reaching out to different community organizations in parts of the country that I was traveling to. It was a very special, intimate experience in meeting them, going into their homes and having conversations with them about their debt and I did a fair amount of background before I showed up to do that. It was a really interesting experience and I think the geography of it played into a lot of those people’s stories as well. A lot of people were experiencing different kinds of debt that had a lot to do with where they lived for different reasons.
And you were open to any kind of debt?
Yes, though I would say that student debt was the most predominate kind of debt in the project. I photographed a lot of people who were just buried in student loan debt and in the past year, I’ve become a lot more involved in some of the campaigns around student loan debt to put pressure on Biden. I don’t think it’s going to happen necessarily, but it’s a very important conversation to have.
It’s also been really interesting since I started the project in 2013, to see how the conversation around debt has really changed. Debt, especially student loan debt, has become something that’s more acceptable to talk about and not associate with failure. It became an issue in the 2016 presidential election and even more so in last year’s election and I think it’s generally a topic that our society is really thinking about and which is seen as problematic and a symptom of income disparity.
How did you approach actually photographing these subjects? Obviously it was very important to you to portray them in a non-shameful way. Had you done work like this before this project?
I had primarily been a portrait photographer and had worked on a documentary project for National Geographic for a couple of years. I’d done stories on undocumented youth in college and a lot of different things. There’s a certain way to approach photography and portraits that give people a sense of empowerment and that was really what I was going for. Part of that is in how you choose to shoot them; everybody in the book is photographed at eye level, so you’re not looking down on them visually. It’s much less of a fly on the wall set-up, which I think is very relevant in some circumstances and much more of a staged, formal photograph in their homes, which was a requirement and also because you have this association with people’s belongings and their material wealth and how that plays into our assumptions about debt. That was a really important component.
There was also a written piece, as I had them fill out the amount of debt they’re in, so they had to be comfortable with making that public. And then there was a space where they could write whatever they wanted to say about how they ended up in debt, as well as their name and occupation. All of those things are meant to really challenge the viewer or our culture and the associations that we bring to things like where people live and how much debt they have and question the stigma we associate with all of those things.
Right, the idea that it’s something that happens to someone else, not us
Exactly. A lot of people have been really surprised by the portraits, in that a lot of these people are middle class, it’s not just something we associate with poorer people. A lot of times, I’d tell people I’m working on this projects, it’s about people in debt and they’d say, ‘Oh, poor people?’ And I’d say no, do you have any debt? Most people do. The other thing I thought about was early Renaissance, Flemish portrait painting, which were really symbolic portraits of people with their worldly belongings. I was really going for some of that drama.
It’s an area of real interest to Spotlight and the poverty field right now; trying to be much more sophisticated and less stereotypical in the imagery we use, pushing back against the demeaning visual narrative about poverty.
I taught photography for a while and it’s something I showed my students. There’s a very iconic image that was shot of a young girl in Haiti and all these reporters photographing her. It’s something I really think about when considering those situations and people being photographed. It’s more of an engagement approach; I don’t use the word collaborative as much because that doesn’t acknowledge that there is a power dynamic that occurs when somebody has a camera. I think it’s important to go into it with the intention of creating imagery that was asking viewers to consider their own situations and how debt is a hidden factor in everyday life that’s not specific to poverty but really specific to how our society works economically.
And I’m sure it made such a difference in how you interacted with your subjects that you yourself had had this experience.
Yes. I started these conversations by telling the subject my experiences, outlining the project, explaining how the shoot would work and where the photos might end up and what reactions they might experience, some of which might not be so comfortable. And there were – people leave nasty comments on internet articles, so I wanted to talk through some of those things. But I would say that most of the people who chose to take part in the project did so because they thought they had an important story to tell and wanted to share that experience. There’s something cathartic about that and also of being part of something that you think is going to further a conversation.
Do you have plans to continue this project at all?
Besides some of the participatory conversations or organizing around it, I’m mostly done, only because I worked on it for seven-plus years. I’m not necessarily motivated to do a film, but I did shoot film in the first five years of the project and I’d possibly be interested in participating in something around that. I’ve been working on some other projects with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project – they’re a great outlet that bring a really interesting approach to journalism.
Do you find that as a result of the pandemic, people are looking at these issues a little bit differently? I don’t think it’s ever been more dramatically shown how close all of us are to economic hardship and needing help in some way.
I was on NPR recently and they had a statistic that had just come out about the debt-savings ratio and how it had changed in the last year and people were prioritizing savings in a way that they hadn’t before as a result of the pandemic, which I thought was pretty interesting. We live in this world where you almost encouraged to live beyond your means through debt. One of the most interesting suggestions I got, when I did my own bankruptcy counseling, was that in the future, the idea is that you prioritize savings, even if that means you pay the minimums on your credit cards. But because we have this sense of shame around debt, people throw all their money into their debt a lot of the time, particularly if they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Any extra money goes to their debt and then it’s much harder to accrue savings. But then you have an emergency and what do you use? You use debt. It was really an eye-opening thing for me.