How much do we really know about the world's wealthiest people?
We often think we understand the rich because we read tabloids and watch celebrities on TV, says Myles Little, a New York City-based photo editor who has put together a new collection of photographs on the richest 1 percent. But actually, most people know surprisingly little about the world's wealthiest.
For example, many people assume the world's top earners are movie stars or athletes — like boxer Floyd Mayweather, who ranked as the top-paid athlete with a respectable $300 million in 2015.
Yet the world's top hedge fund manager made far more last year than Mayweather. Ken Griffin, the founder of Chicago hedge fund Citadel, pocketed $1.3 billion last year, and is hardly a household name.
Little cites another example: One survey asked people around the world how much more they thought chief executives made than their workers. In the U.S., the median response was around 30 times more. But the survey respondents were off by a factor of 10 — it's actually 354 times more.
“We think we know wealth, and we don’t at all,” says Little.
Little is attempting to bridge this gap with a new photo collection, "1 percent: Privilege in a time of global inequality." The photographs are a fascinating glimpse into a global ecosystem of privilege that is both segregated from and reliant on the 99 percent. (Click on the photographs to enlarge them.)
The collection is unique in that it shows how the 1 percent are connected with the rest of us.
There is a long tradition of photography that celebrates wealth without showing any connection to the poor, Little points out. Photographer Slim Aarons showed a palatial and positive view of the good life in his images of the global elite from the 1950s to the 1970s. Before that, Queen Victoria’s personal photographer, Roger Fenton, took photographs that celebrated her and her family, and the power and the prestige of the throne.
There's also a rich tradition of photographing the poor — for example, the portraits of New York City tenement houses and factories by muckraking journalist Jacob Riis in the late 19th Century.
Yet the truth about poverty and wealth is much more muddied and complicated. "Elegance and degradation turn out to be neighbors," Geoff Dyer writes in one of the essays that accompanies the book.
“I see elegance to degradation cheek to jowl everyday in NYC where I live," Little says.
Little's photographs show how the worlds of the wealthy and the poor collide and depend on one another. In Guillaume Bonn’s photo above, maids tend a wealthy Kenyan household. In Christopher Anderson’s photo below, a street preacher delivers a sermon in front of the New York Stock Exchange. There is also a juxtaposition between, as well as within, photos, with, for example, a photograph of a luxurious opera in Monaco placed next to an image of a legless street cleaner.
Little conceived the collection as a reaction to a famous exhibition by photographer Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in the 1950s. Called "The Family of Man," the exhibition contained photographs of people from all over the world. Its manifesto was expressly political, aiming to "convey a message of peace in the midst of the Cold War."
“That show was trying to argue we’re all in this together, no matter where you’re from, whether you’re rich or poor …" says Little. "I find the thesis is a bit questionable at this stage in history. With skyrocketing inequality, I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not all in the same boat together.”
Even Little's process for assembling the photographs is a contrast to Steichen's. While Steichen exhibited a huge array of photos, Little intentionally limited the number of photographs, whittling down a pool of hundreds to only 30 to give the exhibit a refined feeling.
“I wanted this to feel as exclusive and undemocratic as wealth is these days,” he says.
Little also intentionally avoided a caricature of the wealthy, trying instead for reality and nuance. As Dyer writes, the photographs are "neither harrowing nor heroic." For example, Little includes a photograph of the New York City High Line, a project financed by wealthy philanthropists.
Little also strived for a calm and well-crafted aesthetic in order “to make the show feel posh,” he says. "I wanted to borrow the language of privilege and wealth by including beautiful photos, beautiful, precious objects, but I wanted to use that language to subvert wealth, and critique wealth and privilege.”
To do so, he stuck with medium-format photographs, the high-quality kind that are only produced by professional cameras. Ultimately, the show recalls the private collection of a wealthy patron, Little says.
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