The faces of Americans in debt

A large sum of money owed can seem strangely incorporeal – it can weigh heavily while still feeling somehow abstract, unreal. Since shame comes to debt as inexorably as interest, many people do not like to talk about the topic, which makes it even less visible. (One exception is the President, who boasted, “I made my fortune using debt.”) Like many other problems in America, debt is often a systemic dilemma for which individual solutions are expected – save more, cut your credit cards, get a second, third or fourth job. More than half of all credit arrears on Americans’ credit reports come from medical bills – which, given the basic facts of human morbidity and mortality, cannot be avoided or fully planned, especially by l lack of universal health insurance. Meanwhile, 45 million people in the United States carry a collective total of $ 1.5 trillion in student debt, a direct result of a punitive formula: Since the 1980s, tuition fees have increased four times the rate of inflation and eight times higher. household income. People earn and spend their own money, to paraphrase Marx (who knew a thing or two about debt, both personally and politically), but not under circumstances of their own doing.

For all these reasons, much of the power of the new book “The Debt Project: 99 portraits across AmericaFrom photographer Brittany M. Powell, comes from a kind of transgressive banality. Powell set about photographing ninety-nine Americans who owe money (she ended up with a few others, including herself, but started with that number as a reference to the slogan “We are the four. “ninety-nine percent”) and asked them to handwrite accompanying text on what they owe and to whom. The litany of reasons becomes repetitive, because this is how it goes – difficulty finding a job in your field after graduating during the recession, a bad marriage, a bad divorce, sky-high rents in expensive cities, medical crises, many student loans. Sometimes there are epic and terrible variations: a woman’s mother has taken out credit cards in her name and, over a period of ten years, has accumulated “mortgage debt” to fund her “buying habits.” compulsive and hoarding ”.

Powell photographed his subjects at home, often in their bedrooms, and the portraits have the intimacy and uniqueness of seeing people in their own spaces, surrounded by their own possessions. Powell told me she had Flemish portrait painting in mind – the way the genre portrayed people among their possessions, reflecting both the economic rank and the fleetingness of worldly possessions. Like such portraits, those of Powell are imbued with dramatic natural light, saturated color, and calm dignity. She wasn’t going for a documentary feel stolen from the wall – no sense of “gotcha” here. Her subjects are all photographed at or below eye level, which she calls an “empowering” perspective.

Naomi, an art therapist in Brooklyn, who says she owes seventy-five thousand dollars, mostly in graduate student loans, is pictured sitting on a gray sofa, gazing straight, hands clasped on her knees, feet locked in striped socks, next to a shelf full of nuts and seeds in mason jars that reminded me of the phrase “squirrels” for a rainy day. A woman named Simone, who owes three hundred and thirty-two thousand dollars for a mortgage and student loans, poses in front of a tent on her property; she lives in the tent while she rents her house to save money. She is neatly dressed in a sky blue skirt, legs crossed at the ankles, a mug with a rainbow upside down on her cradled in her hands; there is a camping stove visible in the background. Simone resigns herself to a lifetime of debt: “My mortgage doesn’t change and I’ll never pay off my student loans,” she wrote in her accompanying text, “so even though I’m obsessed with them, I don’t not really worried ‘about them. “The youngest person in the book, a nineteen-year-old girl from Boston named Lauren, is a student and a waitress who is already sixty-four thousand dollars in hock,” of that last year of college on top of living expenses and my father out of work due to legal and health circumstances. ”His room is a sympathetic jumble of memories, a student’s palimpsest: photos of friends and family. family glued to the walls, a tarot deck, stacks of notebooks, a little cactus in a red pot on the windowsill. Lauren looks down, stroking a pet rabbit.

Powell started the project in 2013, just after filing for bankruptcy herself. She too had student loan debt. She lived with three roommates in San Francisco, where so many people leave their hearts and financial solvency. She had landed a dream project, working on a long-term assignment for National Geographic, but, even with the other gigs, she managed to put together – freelance work, teaching surf on the weekends – Powell “was always steps away from disaster, putting car repairs and vet bills on a map. credit, or recharging necessities and gas “in order to pay rent or pay off debt As she went through the bankruptcy system, Powell began to reflect on how debt shapes American culture,” socially. and financially, ”she writes in the introduction to her book. “I was surprised that once I dropped off I was no longer ashamed of my experience and wanted to tell others about theirs.”

At first, Powell photographed people she knew, but, she told me, “I wanted it to be more than my artist friends in San Francisco struggling.” So she put together a Kickstarter campaign for the project (“I didn’t want to rack up any more debt doing this”) and started advertising on Craigslist, giving people twenty-five to fifty dollars to pose. and share their stories. Taking to the road, Powell photographed subjects all over the country – some whose livelihoods you might assume would be hit and miss (graduate students, musicians, writers, restaurant workers, a tattoo artist, a hairdresser) and others including you. might not (a surveyor, clinical trials supervisor, doctor, professor of economics). She finished the project seven years later – “exactly how long it took for my bankruptcy to be removed from my credit and financial records” – and just before the pandemic tipped over so many Americans. in economic precariousness. Between 2016 and 2019, she moved to Vermont, got married, had a baby, and bought a house.

The stories of people who have taken on debt on their own, like Powell did, are encouraging, but even more so are those who have organized themselves to help each other. The foreword to Powell’s book is written by Astra Taylor, filmmaker and veteran of the Occupy movement, who co-founded an organization called Debt Collective, which exposes predatory lending practices, educates people about their rights, and organizes strike action. student debt. Its slogan, rich in double meanings, is “You are not a loan”. The portraits of Powell in “The Debt Project”, with their candid and mostly smileless subjects, are an account of people struggling to remember such a statement to be true.

“Debt Portrait # 84, Waterville Valley, NH, 2020.”

François Bessing, freelance interpreter.
Fifty-five thousand dollars in debt.

Bessing writes:

-Student at the top of my class in 2017 with BA in Music (Vocal Performance)
– Cannot find stable work in the field
-Has had legal problems. Was incarcerated
-AirBnb managed to make ends meet. Was expelled.
-Borderline homeless – living with a friend.
-Difficulty finding a relationship.
-To do therapy and sing often.
-Decided to focus on healing and continuing my calling

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