The Many Faces of Living With Debt in America

Debt Portrait #1, San Francisco, CA 2013.

Brittany M. Powell

As was the case with many working professionals following the 2008 economic collapse, Brittany Powell found herself drowning in debt. While she had used credit to help build up her business, she began to rely on credit to pay even her most basic needs in San Francisco.

In 2012, unable to contend with her consumer debt, she filed for bankruptcy and, although she initially felt shame around that, she was surprised at the ease in which the entire process unfolded.

“In a world where you have to represent yourself as being successful in order to be successful, it was something I was ashamed of,” she said. “Debt carries so much weight in your life and then you file and nothing changes. It’s a weird phenomenon, something almost that never existed. That abstraction is interesting to me and I began to feel good talking about it, to not be ashamed about my life and my career.”

Powell decided to try to find other people who were out there who had found themselves carrying a significant amount of debt to open up a new communication around the stigmas associated with debt. She calls the series “The Debt Project,” and so far she has photographed and interviewed 50 people toward a goal of 99, symbolic of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Debt Portrait #43, New Orleans, LA 2015.

Brittany M. Powell

Debt Portrait #22, Portland, OR 2014.

Brittany M. Powell

Debt Portrait #14, Harlem, NY 2013.

Brittany M. Powell

At first Powell met with people through word of mouth, but she soon began placing ads on Craigslist, mostly in the short-term employment sections. She offered $20 to record, interview, and take a portrait of the subjects, ideally in their homes, a nod to Flemish painters of the 15th–17th centuries whose subjects were often seen with their worldly possessions. 

Powell decided not to focus on the type of debt of her subjects, although she said personally she’s most interested in student-loan debt. She feels one of the problems with the American lending system often lies not only with the person receiving the debt but also with whomever is loaning the money.

“When it comes to education debt, lenders don’t take responsibility for the loans that they lend in an unstable economy,” she said. “It’s crazy to take out an art school loan for $150,000 when the probability of becoming a successful artist in this lifetime is pretty slim.”

“It speaks to what’s dangerous about debt. It’s an abstract thing people don’t grasp; it’s not physical and it doesn’t seem real sometimes. Some of that speaks to the lack of education around our debt system and how finance works. I’ve learned the most from subjects that people don’t understand how debt works in our economy. That being said, I think people were also naive about their situation.” 

“I thought having that depiction would challenge the viewer to question their associations that they have with people and their belonging in light of their debt,” she said, noting that many of the comments she has seen online in response to the work has been that people should sell their possessions in order to offset their debt.

Debt Portrait #32, Harrison Township, MI 2014.

Brittany M. Powell

Debt Portrait #33, Detroit, MI 2014.

Brittany M. Powell

“It has brought up judgment and a stigma that we culturally enforce. … I try to prepare people to say other people will judge your situation and your story but that’s part of the process.”

To help counter that, Powell said she tries to pose her subjects in a manner that is empowering, rather than going after a more documentary-style approach she feels might ask the viewer to pity them. She also includes a handwritten note from each subject that lists the amount of debt they have and their feelings around it.

“I wanted to give the subjects even more of a voice, so it’s not only interpreted through me. It’s really cathartic to tell their story, for some people it has been a huge part of their life. I like the idea of a handwritten statement. It makes something physical out of something abstract.”

Debt Portrait #41, New Orleans, LA 2015.

Brittany M. Powell

Debt Portrait #39, New Orleans, LA 2015.

Brittany M. Powell

Previously on Slate: