Intimate Portraits Of People In Debt Shed Light On A Hidden American Crisis

Libby Kane

Brittany Powell knows what it's like to be in debt.

After losing work during the 2008 financial crisis, the San-Francisco based photographer owed about $30,000 to the credit card companies she had used to keep her afloat.

"I had to put groceries on my credit card so I could pay my rent," she remembers. "All of my cash flow going to debt became this really stressful kind of juggling situation. It was definitely a really awful time in my life."

Powell filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

"Filing was a big deal because as soon as it was over with, I realized that debt is this really abstract thing," she recalls. "How you perceive it changes how it works. I had so much shame and stress associated with it, and all of that went away."

As Powell started researching how debt works in the US, she quickly realized she wasn't the only one who had experienced its crushing weight. In fact, Americans altogether owe about $880 billion in credit card debt, with the average indebted household owing over $15,000.

This realization sparked her to embark on a multimedia photography project creating portraits of people in different kinds of debt across the US, interviewing them about how that obligation affects them on a day to day basis and how it makes them feel. So far, she's photographed 32 people around San Francisco, Portland, New York, and Detroit. Ultimately, she hopes to shoot 99 people — one for each of the 99%.

Here, Powell has shared some of the photographs and confessions from her project. You can support her mission to capture more stories of debt around the country on Kickstarter.

James M. Thomas, Graduate Student, Writer: $24,500 in debt

"I've been in and out of graduate school since 2003, with brief stints of full-time work in between degrees. Although I have (had!) a small amount of savings, it was never commensurate with my decisions to attend an expensive school, cover the difference between income (fellowships, etc.) and monthly expenses, or support my desires to live in expensive cities (New York, San Francisco)."

Shareen Jallad, Massage Therapist: $10,000 in debt

"I was given a high credit line after receiving life insurance money. While grieving and not working I accumulated $20K in debt on frivolous spending."

Mike, Architectural Designer: $160,000 in debt

"Master's degree (4) years. Real estate deal. Unemployment."

Martin Olive, Executive Director, Vapor Room Cooperative: $930,500 in debt

"I was audited by the IRS for opening a medical cannabis dispensary in 2004 and 2005. The IRS applied an obscure IRS provision — 280E, which disallowed me from deducting cannabis 'cost of goods' as a standard business deduction.

"Subsequently, I am forced to pay the full income tax plus interest and penalties. Added to that huge tax burden, I suffered a brain aneurysm and had surgery plus 10 days in ICU without health coverage!"

JD Bates, Surf Instructor, Food Server, Entrepreneur: $30,000 in debt

"I was working for a startup, and they could only afford to pay me very little, so I racked up debt on credit cards to pay for everyday life stuff. Then, the business went under, the recession hit, I moved, couldn't find a good job, and I've been under ever since."

Morris LeGrande, Musician: $450,000 in debt

"Bad mortgage, job loss in 2005."

Bayeté Ross Smith, Photographer, Professor: $91,000 in debt

"When you are in creative professions and work as an entrepreneur you must wear many hats."

Jeremy E. Mills, Unemployed: $30,000 in debt

"I am currently in debt for $30,000 in student loans. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, where I attended college for a degree in railroading operations. I am scheduled to begin repayment of my loans next month, but have no current plans on how to pay them."

Grace Ragland, Family Support Worker: $75,000 in debt

"I began my history of debt when I started college. I was never taught how to handle money, so I spent all my earnings. Going full time to college, I needed the extra money from student loans, so I used the remainder to live off of — pay car loan, etc.

"When my ex-husband got incarcerated and left me as the sole supporter of the family, I wasn't able to pay any previous debts. I kept building debt even though I worked 2-3 jobs 7 days a week for 7 years. My health took a toll and I now have a F.T. job and my kids are older. Starting to see the light at the end — thanks to some help from family and lots of prayer! It affects every part of my life and I wish I had been taught to prioritize handling money."

Ramon Romero, Entrepreneur: $250,000 in debt

"I've accumulated over $250,000 in debt. Starting from credit cards, phone bills, and a laundromat that I purchased. In nine months my water bill was over $28,700."

Michele Manis, Housekeeper/Revibe Artist: $35,000 in debt

"I accumulated the last round of debt after paying off a large amount at 23. When I went back to college I acquired most of the debt ... The rest was from mail order catalogs, debt, and getting through in homeless times robbing Peter to pay Paul, or so they say."

Bernite Bradley, Community Outreach and Engagement for ESD: $26,000 in debt

"Was in debt for $130,000 for homes and cars. Now still in debt for $26,000 from student loans that helped me live while I was in school. I plan to pay them off one day soon."

Find out where mortgages are the lowest:

The 25 Cheapest Housing Markets In America »

See Also: