The Many Faces of Living With Debt in America

By:  David Rosenberg

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.

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. 

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