A large sum of money owed can seem strangely incorporeal—it may weigh heavily while still feeling somehow abstract, unreal. Since shame accrues to debt as inexorably as interest, many people don’t like to talk about the topic, rendering it even less visible. (An exception is the President, who has boasted, “I’ve made a fortune by using debt.”) Like many other problems in America, debt is often a systemic dilemma for which individual solutions are expected—save more, cut up your credit cards, get a second or a third or a fourth job. More than half of all overdue debt on Americans’ credit reports is from medical bills—which, given the fundamental facts of human morbidity and mortality, can be neither avoided nor entirely planned for, especially in the absence of universal health insurance. Meanwhile, forty-five million people in the United States carry a collective total of 1.5 trillion dollars in student debt, a direct result of a punishing formula: since the eighties, college tuition has risen at four times the rate of inflation and eight times that of household income. People make, 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 making.
For all of these reasons, a good deal of the power in the new book “The Debt Project: 99 Portraits Across America,” by the photographer Brittany M. Powell, comes from a kind of transgressive mundaneness. Powell set about photographing ninety-nine Americans who owe money (she ended up with a few more, including herself, but started with that figure as a reference to the slogan “We are the ninety-nine per cent”) and asked them to handwrite accompanying text about how much they owe, and to whom. The litany of reasons gets repetitive, because that’s how it goes—difficulty finding a job in one’s field after graduating during the recession, a bad marriage, a bad divorce, vertiginous rents in expensive cities, medical crises, many, many student loans. Occasionally, there are epic and awful variations: one woman’s mother took out credit cards in her name and, in a ten-year period, racked up “a mortgage worth of debt” to fund her “compulsive shopping and hoarding habits.”
Powell photographed her subjects in their homes, often in their bedrooms, and the portraits have the intimacy and lived-in particularity that derives from seeing people in their own spaces, surrounded by their own possessions. Powell told me that she had Flemish portrait painting in mind—the way the genre depicted people among their belongings, conveying both economic rank and the ephemerality of worldly goods. Like such portraits, Powell’s are suffused with dramatic natural light, saturated color, and calm dignity. She wasn’t going for a fly-on-the-wall documentary feel—no sense of “gotcha” here. Her subjects are all photographed from eye level or below, what she calls an “empowering” perspective.
Naomi, an artist and executive assistant in Brooklyn, who says she owes seventy-five thousand dollars, mostly in student loans from a graduate degree, is shown seated on a gray couch, gaze straightforward, hands clasped in her lap, feet encased in striped socks, next to a shelf full of nuts and seeds in mason jars that made me think of the phrase “squirrelling away” for a rainy day. A woman named Simone, who owes three hundred and thirty-two thousand dollars, for a mortgage and student loans, poses outside a tent on her property; she is living in the tent while she rents out her house to save money. She is neatly dressed in a sky-blue skirt, her legs crossed at the ankles, a mug with an upside-down rainbow on it cradled in her hands; there’s a camping stove visible in the background. Simone is resigned to a lifetime of debt: “My mortgage isn’t changing and I’ll never pay off my student loans,” she writes in her accompanying text, “so although I obsess about them, I don’t really ‘worry’ about them.” The youngest person in the book, a nineteen-year-old from Boston named Lauren, is a student and waitress who is already sixty-four thousand dollars in hock, “from this past year of college in addition to living expenses and my father being out of work due to legal and health circumstances.” Her room is a congenial clutter of memories, a college student’s palimpsest: photos of friends and family taped to the walls, a tarot deck, piles of notebooks, a little cactus in a red pot on the windowsill. Lauren gazes downward, cuddling a pet bunny.
Powell started the project in 2013, just after filing for bankruptcy herself. She, too, had student-loan debt. She was living with three roommates in San Francisco, where so many people leave their hearts and their 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 stitch together—freelance work, teaching surfing on the weekends—Powell “was always inches away from disaster, putting car repairs and vet bills on a credit card, or charging necessities and gasoline” in order to pay rent or make debt payments. As she proceeded through the bankruptcy system, Powell began to think about how debt shapes American culture, “socially and financially,” she writes in the introduction to her book. “I was surprised that once I filed, I no longer felt ashamed about my experience, and I wanted to talk to others about theirs.”
At first, Powell photographed people she knew, but, she told me, “I wanted it to be about more than my artist friends in San Francisco who were struggling.” So she put together a Kickstarter campaign for the project (“I didn’t want to rack up more debt doing this”) and started advertising on Craigslist, offering 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 guess would be chancy (grad students, musicians, writers, restaurant workers, a tattoo artist, a hair stylist) and some whose you might not (a surveyor, a clinical-trials supervisor, a physician, an economics professor). She finished the project seven years later—“exactly the amount of time it took for my bankruptcy to be removed from my credit report and financial record”—and just before the pandemic tipped so many more Americans into economic precarity. Between 2016 and 2019, she moved to Vermont, got married, had a baby, and bought a house.
Stories of people clambering out of debt on their own, as Powell did, are hopeful, but even more so are those people who have organized to help one another. The foreword to Powell’s book is written by Astra Taylor, a filmmaker and veteran of the Occupy movement, who co-founded an organization called the Debt Collective, which exposes predatory lending practices, informs people of their rights, and organizes student-debt strikes. Its slogan, a rich double-entendre, is “You are not a loan.” Powell’s portraits in “The Debt Project,” with their forthright and mostly unsmiling subjects, are a record of people struggling to remind themselves that such a statement is true.
François Bessing, freelance performer.
Fifty-five thousand dollars in debt.
Wynde Dyer, artist and cab driver.
About a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt.
“My mom took out credit cards 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 $3000-$5000 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,” Dyer writes.