Photographer shines light on faces of debt

Struggling to find work in 2012 amid the fallout from the recession, photographer Brittany Powell declared bankruptcy to relieve herself of the credit card debt she had accumulated just trying to make ends meet -- and then found the idea for her next project.

A photo of SF State MFA student Brittany Powell

Brittany Powell, an SF State MFA student, started The Debt Project after declaring bankruptcy in 2012.

"When I filed for bankruptcy, it had followed such a stressful time that it got me thinking about debt and the role it plays on our lives," she said. "It was a huge relief that it was gone, but conceptually, debt is a weird thing. It's abstract in form, but can weigh very heavily on a person, and I became interested in exploring that in my art."

Since launching The Debt Project in 2012, Powell, an MFA student at SF State, has photographed 50 individuals, interviewed them and invited them to share their debt stories on handwritten notes. She hopes to illuminate the role that this invisible but powerful force can play in the lives of everyday people and reframe how society perceives it. Her goal is to eventually have 99 subjects -- including herself -- and she is using the photos and stories as the basis for her thesis project.

The inspiration to use photography to highlight debt came from medieval Flemish portrait paintings, in which the subjects were depicted surrounded by personal possessions. "In the middle ages, everyone got painted in this way," Powell said. "I've always been interested in photography as a social documentary, so it seemed like a good medium for this topic."

A photo of a woman, photographed as part of The Debt Project, sitting at a kitchen table

Michelle Manis, a housekeeper and artist who wrote that she is $35,000 in debt, is one of 50 individuals photographed so far by Brittany Powell as part of The Debt Project. Photo: Brittany Powell

The portraits are formal, showing the subjects in their everyday environment: seated on a couch or chair in their living room, surrounded by books, pictures, art and other items. The somber looks on their faces tell the deeper story, as do the notes. "$450,000," writes a musician, "Bad mortgage, job loss in 2005." Another accumulated $30,000 in debt buying "everyday life stuff" while working for a startup that paid him very little. "The business went under, the recession hit, I moved, couldn't find a good job, and I've been under ever since."

Together, the portraits and notes tell the stories of ordinary people living with an all-too-common burden.

"I've had random people email me to say how important it was for them to see the project and know they're not alone, that it's a problem everyone experiences," Powell said. "We have this view of debt as being something to be ashamed of, but it's so culturally enforced."

A photo of a woman, photographed as part of The Debt Project, sitting in her living room

This woman photographed as part of The Debt Project said she has accumulated $120,000 in student loan debt. Photo: Brittany Powell

Powell, who will graduate this spring and hopes to continue working as a professional photographer as well as teach, said The Debt Project has not only helped her be a better photographer, it also has allowed her to use her skills to explore an issue that has become personally important to her.

"My goal as a photographer is not to make a ton of money. It's always been to make art that precipitates social change and addresses issues around community," she said. "This project has definitely been fulfilling in that way."

-- Jonathan Morales