Debt can be invisible. Yet the stress of living with massive amounts of debt from student loans, credit cards, medical treatments or bad real estate deals can weigh on someone so much that it feels like a physical burden.
Brittany M. Powell, a San Francisco-based photographer, knows that weight firsthand. After a 15-year career as a commercial photographer, including stints for National Geographic, Powell wound up underemployed, paying most of her income toward her rent, and living off of credit cards for several years. In 2012, she finally filed for bankruptcy, another change that ultimately transformed her life.
The experience, she said in an interview, taught her a lot about living with debt – how it is a shameful and private experience, but at the same time incredibly common in the U.S. “Many of us are in the same situation, but it’s not something that we collaboratively talk about," Powell said.
Though people don't often talk openly about it, living with tens of thousands of dollars of debt is now a common American experience. Families have more than twice as much debt than they did in the 1950s. Mortgages make up around 70 percent of household debt, while auto loans, credit cards, student loans and other categories account for the rest.
Once Powell started talking openly about her own experience with debt, she found that many people were eager to share their similar experiences. Shortly thereafter, she began “The Debt Project,” her current effort to photograph 99 people across the U.S. and interview them about the role that debt plays in their lives.
She has so far photographed about 50 of the 99 – a nod to Occupy Wall Street’s “99 percent” – in locations including San Francisco, New Orleans, Detroit and rural Vermont. Powell says she spends about an hour chatting with her subjects about their experiences and photographs them in their houses. She also has them write a hand-written note to explain their amount of debt and how they acquired it next to each photo. (Click on the photos to enlarge them.)
Powell, who also has talked to Slate about her photos, says the photo series was inspired by Flemish portrait paintings, in which the wealthy would have themselves painted with all their worldly possessions around them. The painting became a testament to their wealth, and a representation of their value. Here is one example of a wealthy Flemish couple, painted by Jan van Eyck in the 15th Century:
But if debt is invisible, how do you photograph it? Powell realized that, by photographing indebted people in their households, she was also capturing their debt. In America today, our houses and our sofas are often imbued with debt. Even our careers and our healthy bodies are often made possible through taking on debt.
“Possessions in this country really represent a part of ourselves,” she said in a phone interview. “For some people, those are acquired through debt in some indirect way. And for some people, they’re the reason they’re in debt.”
She found that some readers have a negative reaction to the surroundings in their photograph – for example, saying they can’t be sympathetic to an indebted person with such a nice sofa. But Powell said she wants to make a portrait that is beautiful and empowering, and also capture the complex costs and benefits of taking on debt. Student loans can provide you with the potential for a better life, but also be the burden that keeps that better life from being realized.
“[Debt] is something that we have the privilege of having the opportunity to use, but then we’re kind of enslaved by it afterwards,” Powell says. One of her interviewees, a freelance writer and teacher, expresses that feeling of privilege below:
Powell also found that debt was highly associated with shame, in part because it is such a private experience. One aspect is the shame of not really being rich in a society that values wealth so highly.
“You don’t picture that someone who is extremely successful is somebody who might be buried in debt. That might be the reality, and I think it’s because people are ashamed to talk about it… We associated success in our culture with being financially stable and prosperous. If you’re in the negative, you’re not really rich or wealth. And that’s the dream, to be rich and wealthy,” she says.
Shame also originates from the feeling of being victimized. People don’t really understand how debt works, says Powell – that it is sold in a secondary market, or backed up by a promissory note. And taking on an $80,000 or $90,000 student loan when you’re 19, or racking up credit card bills in an effort to “build credit” create both opportunities and risks that are hard for many people to navigate.
Because of the shameful and shared nature of debt, Powell's subjects found talking about it to be cathartic. She sees the interviews she conducted while taking her photographs as “the meat of the project,” an opportunity to share experiences and create an oral history of America's indebtedness.
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