The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The paradox of poverty, through the lens of Michael Williamson

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.