Alumna’s 99 portraits are an intimate look at life with debt
Brittany M. Powell’s graduate thesis sparked years of photography, culminating in a new book
A photograph inside alumna Brittany M. Powell’s (M.F.A., ’15) recent book shows a young woman sitting in her living room surrounded by the stereotypical trappings of millennial life: mid-century modern furniture, a handful of books with artistic covers and colorful framed prints. At first glance, the photo could be pulled from an interior design website about urban living. But the caption — a handwritten note by the subject — tells a different story.
“Debt Portrait #17, Portland, OR 2014,” it says. “Wynde Dyer, artist and cab driver. $150,000 +/-.”
The photo of Dyer is just one of the 99 portraits Powell captured in her book, “The Debt Project: 99 Portraits Across America.” It’s a project she began in 2013 as a graduate student in photography at San Francisco State University. Her work is both personal — Powell is one of the 99 portraits — and political. The decision to capture 99 portraits was a nod to the 2008 Great Recession and the Occupy Wall Street-era slogan “We are the 99%.” Powell hopes her work advances conversations around income inequality and the widening wealth gap.
Powell composed the portraits in the style of Flemish paintings, which depicted their subjects surrounded by personal possessions. Powell’s subjects are posed solemnly in their homes, among their knickknacks, plants and books. Accompanying the photos are handwritten explanations that detail the origin and amount of their debt load. The most common culprit: student loans and credit card debt. In Dyer’s case, her mother committed credit card fraud in her name.
Like Dyer, Powell’s issue wasn’t student debt. Her problems began when a career as a freelance photographer wasn’t panning out, she says. Although her work appeared on National Geographic TV, it was too hard to make a living. “I struggled to make ends meet living in San Francisco, especially after the economic collapse in 2008,” she said. She wanted a career that offered financial stability. When she settled on teaching as an option, she filed for bankruptcy and applied to graduate school at SF State.
The faculty at the University intimately shaped the project, she says. “I had some very grueling critiques with professors who pushed me to create new meaningful work, which led me to start this project about my experience with debt,” she said.
The project started off small — just 20 or so portraits of people she knew. But her professors told her it needed to include more diverse voices. So Powell launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter with the goal of completing 99 portraits. When she graduated in 2015, she had 35 subjects, which she posted on her website thedebtproject.net.
Over the next several years, she chipped away at the rest of the photographs. To recruit participants, she posted ads on Craigslist explaining her intentions and sharing her own personal story with debt. She also reached out to churches and nonprofit organizations. Several conversations with her subjects would follow.
“Most everybody participated because they felt like they had something to say about the subject,” Powell added. “They felt like they’d had an experience that they wanted to share and that it would be cathartic in some way to do that.”
In the seven years it took to complete the project, Powell moved to Vermont and began teaching and working in the marketing department of a college. She also became a mom. Just before the world shut down due to COVID-19 she finished her project, and the book was published in October 2020.
While her book took years to complete, the topic couldn’t be more relevant today. “My hope has always been that the project would contribute to the bigger conversation,” she said. And it has. Powell says activists have reached out to tell told her the book has been helpful in raising awareness around the issue of student debt and making people in these situations feel less alone.
Powell also hopes that the images demonstrate the importance of the arts — usually one of first fields to feel the squeeze when communities start tightening their belts. “We have such an opportunity to really think about how the arts and culture are so vital to our nation and how we should be funding them and supporting them,” she said. “We have an opportunity to really think about that as we rebuild so much of our economy that’s getting destroyed.”