The paradox of poverty, through the lens of Michael Williamson

August 7

Michael Williamson is an award-winning photographer at The Washington Post. He was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for his photographs of food stamp recipients and their struggles. Williamson answered questions about his work on poverty through the years.


Austin Davis, 1, munches on a piece of wheat bread (he was too young for a full sandwich) on the Lunch Express bus, which serves poor children in areas around Greeneville, Tenn. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Q: You’ve been photographing poverty throughout your career. What difference have you seen between photographing recession now versus in the past?

A: It’s a much more diverse crowd. I have many, many images from ’80, ’81, through the late 80s — long lines of people getting free food or job lines, and thousands of people would show up. And they were almost all middle class, blue collar, regular Midwest type folks.

When I was doing the food stamps story, we were looking at these long lines for the free food. It was just a cross section of America. New immigrants, old immigrants, college students, retired people, handicapped, mentally ill, substance abuse, people [who had been] in jail, middle managers, people who’d had a job for 30 years.


Kids make their way off the bus after eating their lunch on the Lunch Express bus. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Erica Johnson, 2, jumps for joy when the Lunch Express bus enters her apartment complex. She yelled, “The bus is here! The bus is here!”

Q: What’s kept you interested in this topic? Do you have any sort of personal connection to it?

A: I had a mother who had a difficult life and was married several times and I ended up in the foster care system with a lot of very average families. I was on food stamps for a while and lived in trailer parks. It sounds a little cheesy, but when I meet people in a food line or trailer park or are just down on their luck — I kind of grew up with that socio-economic group. And you know, I just know that crowd.

And I’m interested in how people pursue that American dream. [People who] did everything right, did everything they were told to do, hard working clean living, and yet they’re not going to get a piece of the action beyond barely surviving.


Lonnie Briglia, 60, composes himself as he told of the losing battle with the bank to save the family home in Fort Pierce, Fla. He’s inside the small trailer he bought for $750 after losing the home to foreclosure. He’s been on the fence about taking part in the SNAP food assistance program but said he might do it if desperate. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Quick and cheap, and usually unhealthy, prepared food offerings are pervasive in Hidalgo County, Tex. A popular local favorite is the Hot Cheetos with Cheese sauce poured into the bag (prepared here by Adriana Gonzalez) that sells for $1. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Courtney Laughren, 13, gives her 9-month-old sister Sarah Jackson some Mountain Dew soft drink. The high caffeine and sugar drink often keeps Sarah up at night. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Q: What is the difference between rural poverty and urban poverty?

A: So the rural folks, their issue is lack of health care. They’ve got diabetes, and they get sicker and with less care they die earlier. They suffer more because they have no health care whereas in the city they go to the free clinics. They go to the hospital emergency room, their primary care provider, and they might just rack up bills … but they don’t pay them. And they don’t get kicked out of the emergency room.  But they get really hit by transportation costs and housing costs.


Jeremy Castro, 4, wearing his Batman costume, peers out from the fence at the family home in Alamo, Tex. At far left is his brother Pablo, 6 and center is his sister Emily, 13, holding brother Jaime, 2. Emily said she had participated in the nutrition education seminar that came to her school. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Christopher Vasquez, 5, right, hoists his brother Joel, 1, from a bucket where he was bathing in McAllen, Tex. Their mother, Francesca Vasquez, was approached by nutrition educators and asked to participate in the program. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Q: What kind of impact have you seen the food stamps series have?

A: I think it’s been good for people who’ve written other reports to make the case that the typical recipient of food stamps is not who you think it is. … As our series pointed out, the typical food stamp recipient is a Caucasian American. So it’s not a person of color. It’s not a lazy person who won’t work. It’s not a scammer. It’s a 6-year-old Caucasian boy who lives in Tennessee.

You know, when I was on food stamps as a kid, I was a good kid who probably wouldn’t have taken to crime. But if I was hungry enough, I might have shoplifted a can of tuna or some spaghetti. But I didn’t have to. We had food because of food stamps. And I became an educated, hard-working citizen who has paid back this government all the money that came our way hundreds of times over. So my feeling is, the government invested in me. And they’ve gotten a darn good return on their money.


William Ramsey, 63, gets a box of food at a food pantry in Hobe Sound, Fla. He will share it with his 89-year-old mother and 91-year-old father. He was laid off and is fighting throat cancer and is very low on funds. He talked to SNAP outreach worker Dillie Nerios but has not yet decided if he wants to take part in the program. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Marion Mattrazzo, 54, suffers from cirrhosis of the liver and lives on about $7,000 per year. She signed up for the SNAP program since her income goes to medical related expenses. She’s too young to be eligible for Medicare. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

William Bobola, 75, of Woonsocket, R.I., lives on a fixed income and receives food stamps, but on the last day of the month, he (like many others) runs out of food. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Q: Can you speak to the image of the little boy eating bread on the Lunch Express bus (top)?

A. I do like the picture because he’s so sweet and innocent and he’s in his little diaper. I’ll go ahead and say it’s my favorite picture. But there are some other photos that hit me in a different way. Like the little girl who’s jumping up and down and saying, “The food bus is here! The lunch bus is here!” Because for some of those kids, it’s their only meal and they’ve been waiting on the stoop of that apartment all day, waiting for that bus.

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