Poignant Portraits of Americans in Debt Explore the Role Debt Plays in Our Personal Identity

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For photographer Brittany M. Powell, debt isn’t just the subject of a personal portrait project, it’s a harsh reality that she’s had to face herself.

Inspired by her own experience with debt and bankruptcy after the financial crisis in 2008, she set out to expose the truth about debt and how it impacts both our society and our personal identity in The Debt Project.

At its core, The Debt Project is as much for the subjects as it is for the photographer and the ultimate viewers. A mixed-media project, each portrait is attached to a video interview and a short written statement in which each of the subjects writes down the amount of debt they’re in and the story behind it.

Morris LeGrande, Musician, $450,000 in debt. My debt is from a bad mortgage and  job loss in 2005.

Morris LeGrande, Musician, $450,000 in debt. My debt is from a bad mortgage and job loss in 2005.

“In a state of Social Darwinism, (which we basically live in) the people who have less are seen as weaker… no one wants to consider themselves as lesser or weaker, but when you live in a culture that worships wealth, how can that be avoided?” she told Feature Shoot recently in an interview. “The shame is self-perpetuating and it consistently fuels the stigma.”

Her photographs and the project as a whole gives her participants the opportunity to discuss their troubles, and reminds them that they are not alone. Many found it “liberating… to discuss their experiences,” she writes, and each exhibition helps to shed more light on a pervasive problem that, according to CNN, is only getting worse.

Below are a set of portraits from the project that Powell was kind enough to share with our readers:

Taylor Nairn, Surveyor and Data Manager for a long-term shoreline monitoring project. $59,636.27 in debt. I got into debt from student loans and being naive about finances -- also the fact that we live in a culture that values debt and money more than education and the next generation.

Taylor Nairn, Surveyor and Data Manager for a long-term shoreline monitoring project. $59,636.27 in debt. I got into debt from student loans and being naive about finances — also the fact that we live in a culture that values debt and money more than education and the next generation.

Mike, Architectural designer, $160,000 in debt. My debt is combined product of a Masters degree, 4 years, a real estate deal, and unemployment.

Mike, Architectural designer, $160,000 in debt. My debt is combined product of a Masters degree, 4 years, a real estate deal, and unemployment.

Bayeté Ross Smith. Photographer, multi-media artist, professor, visual artist, educator. Approximately $91,000 in debt from student loans.

Bayeté Ross Smith. Photographer, multi-media artist, professor, visual artist, educator. Approximately $91,000 in debt from student loans.

Wynde Dyer. Artist/Cabdriver. Approximately $150,000 in debt. My mom took out a credit card in my name. From 1988 - 1998 she incurred "a mortgage worth of debt" (according to my bankruptcy attorney) on my SSI. Mostly to fuel her compulsive shopping and hoarding habits. I have no credit debt, just about $3,000-$5,000 owed to various banks and cell phone companies and other evil corporations who hit me with erroneous charges. BUT I was an idiot and took out the maximum student loans available to me, even though I had a graduate teaching assistantship w/a stipend and tuition remission. I have defaulted, and interest has risen. I owed about $139,000 last time I opened a bill several years ago. So it goes.

Wynde Dyer. Artist/Cabdriver. Approximately $150,000 in debt. My mom took out a credit card in my name. From 1988 – 1998 she incurred “a mortgage worth of debt” (according to my bankruptcy attorney) on my SSI. Mostly to fuel her compulsive shopping and hoarding habits. I have no credit debt, just about $3,000-$5,000 owed to various banks and cell phone companies and other evil corporations who hit me with erroneous charges. BUT I was an idiot and took out the maximum student loans available to me, even though I had a graduate teaching assistantship w/a stipend and tuition remission. I have defaulted, and interest has risen. I owed about $139,000 last time I opened a bill several years ago. So it goes.

Sean Scott. Unemployed/Student. $20,000 in debt. Most of my debt is student loans and credit cards. I ran up all my cards after my divorce nine years ago and it's been hard to catch up since then. I've also been out of work off and on over the years.

Sean Scott. Unemployed/Student. $20,000 in debt. Most of my debt is student loans and credit cards. I ran up all my cards after my divorce nine years ago and it’s been hard to catch up since then. I’ve also been out of work off and on over the years.

Grace Ragland, Family support worker, $75,000 in debt. I began my history of debt when I started college. I was never taught how to handle money, so I spent all my earnings. Going full time to college, I needed the extra money from student loans, so I used the remainder to live off of—pay car loan, etc. When my ex-husband got incarcerated and left me as the sole supporter of the family, I wasn’t able to pay any  previous debts. I kept building debt even though I worked 2-3 jobs 7 days a week for 7 years. My heath took a toll and I now have a F.T. job and my kids are older. Starting to see the light at the end—thanks to some help from family and lots of prayer! It affects every part of my life and I wish I had been taught to prioritize handling money.

Grace Ragland, Family support worker, $75,000 in debt. I began my history of debt when I started college. I was never taught how to handle money, so I spent all my earnings. Going full time to college, I needed the extra money from student loans, so I used the remainder to live off of—pay car loan, etc. When my ex-husband got incarcerated and left me as the sole supporter of the family, I wasn’t able to pay any previous debts. I kept building debt even though I worked 2-3 jobs 7 days a week for 7 years. My heath took a toll and I now have a F.T. job and my kids are older. Starting to see the light at the end—thanks to some help from family and lots of prayer! It affects every part of my life and I wish I had been taught to prioritize handling money.

Tyler Katchever. Painter/Handyman. $6,000 in debt. Student loans were required before I was even able to get a stable career. Credit cards for 'emergencies' became a way to spend money when I had not been paid yet.

Tyler Katchever. Painter/Handyman. $6,000 in debt. Student loans were required before I was even able to get a stable career. Credit cards for ‘emergencies’ became a way to spend money when I had not been paid yet.

Mario Garnes, 28 yrs, Tattoo artist / Biker, $40,000+ in debt. I graduated from high school in 2004. I went to Tennessee State University. In 2006, I developed Crohn’s Disease. I had to drop out of school and eventually move back to Detroit, MI. Now I owe for student loans, as well as medical bills. My debt is pretty high due to interest.

Mario Garnes, 28 yrs, Tattoo artist / Biker, $40,000+ in debt. I graduated from high school in 2004. I went to Tennessee State University. In 2006, I developed Crohn’s Disease. I had to drop out of school and eventually move back to Detroit, MI. Now I owe for student loans, as well as medical bills. My debt is pretty high due to interest.

Michele Manis, Housekeeper / Artist, $35,000 in debt. I accumulated this last round of debt after paying off a large amount at 23. I acquired most of the debt when I went back to college. The rest was from mail order catalogs and robbing Peter to pay Paul, or so they say, to get through during times of homelessness.

Michele Manis, Housekeeper / Artist, $35,000 in debt. I accumulated this last round of debt after paying off a large amount at 23. I acquired most of the debt when I went back to college. The rest was from mail order catalogs and robbing Peter to pay Paul, or so they say, to get through during times of homelessness.

Bernite Bradley, Community Outreach & Engagement for ESD. I was in debt for $130,000 for homes and cars. I am now still in debt for $26,000 from student loans that helped me live which I was in school. I plan to pay them off one day soon.

Bernite Bradley, Community Outreach & Engagement for ESD. I was in debt for $130,000 for homes and cars. I am now still in debt for $26,000 from student loans that helped me live which I was in school. I plan to pay them off one day soon.

Regina Hollis, Parent Partner, AmeriCorps, $30,000. I got into debt because of student loans and letting someone close to me put a car in my name.

Regina Hollis, Parent Partner, AmeriCorps, $30,000. I got into debt because of student loans and letting someone close to me put a car in my name.

The project is on-going, and the goal for Powell is to photograph 99 people from all over the United States so that she can build an accurate, nation-wide portrait of Debt in America.

So far, the project has been well-received, exhibited several times throughout the SF Bay area with more inquiries arriving by the day. However, it has also been self-funded with the exception of a small grant from the Puffin Foundation.

In order to do The Debt Project justice, Powell needs help, and so she’s taken to Kickstarter to try and raise $11K that will cover audio post-production, travel expenses and printing and framing:

With 5 days left in the 30-day campaign, Powell has raised over $6K of the $11K she needs, but time is running out. Pledge gifts, if you choose to help her out, include everything from a limited edition 8×12 print for $40, to an original, hand-made, first and only the Debt Project book mockup for $1,500 or more.

If you’d like to put down a pledge or find out more, head over to The Debt Project Kickstarter by clicking here.

(via Feature Shoot)


Image credits: Photographs by Brittany M. Powell and used with permission

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