Bouncing Back from Bankruptcy: Brittany Powell and the Debt Project

Ester: Hello! Let’s start at the beginning. Can you say a little bit about who you are and what your project is?

Brittany: Sure. So, I am Brittany M. Powell, I am a San Francisco based photographer. The project I am working on is a photographic and multimedia exploration of the way debt affects our personal identity and where it fits into our social structure.

Ester: I came to your project through some very stark, moving pictures and stories featured on The Bold Italic. How did you choose those subjects? Are they people that you knew personally in advance?

Brittany: The subjects features in the Bold Italic were only the Bay Area participants of the project, so they were the first 12 people. To date I’ve shot 32. Most of those people in the beginning came to me through my social network. A handful were friends, and some were people who heard about the project through their friends.

Ester: What other cities have you explored and how did you find participants there?

Brittany: I’ve been to New York, Portland and Detroit so far. The handful of people I shot in NY were also personal references. The participants in PDX and DET I mostly found through craigslist. I posted an ad asking people who are in debt to participate in a photo project.

Ester: How do people react, generally? Is there an element of shame that they have to overcome to go public with these stories? Some of them have debts in the six figures. And we have a strong taboo about talking about money at all in this country.

Brittany: Well, a lot of the people agreed to participate as a way to overcome some of that shame. So yes, to answer your question. Almost everyone that has participated has told me how cathartic it was for them. It was definitely a new experience for them, sitting down with (for many of them) a stranger and talking about their debts for an hour.

Ester: Sure, I can imagine. It must feel a bit like therapy. What’s your end goal with this project? To raise awareness, or something more?

Brittany: My end goal is to photograph 99 people across America. I’m interested in creating a platform to discuss how stigmatized debt is in our culture. It’s a publicly enforced system, but it’s typically privately experienced. People often need to go into debt for various reasons, then, as a part of the way our culture perceives it, carry it as a burden, something they feel ashamed about.

Ester: What has your own experience with debt been like? I see on your Kickstarter that you filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

Brittany: Yes, I did. My experience with debt started a long time ago, but what lead me to bankruptcy was a period in my life where I was very underemployed and basically racked up in debt what I had lost in income — almost to the dollar. After treading water for a couple years, I didn’t want to do it anymore. I felt like something needed to change. Once I filed, I realized how much shame I had been carrying around with me in terms of my debt, and what a strange feeling it was to have it go away. It’s such an abstract thing, in some ways it was hard to perceive it as every having existed in the first place.

Ester: How did you come to the decision to file? Did someone suggest it?

Brittany: I think my mom suggested it quite a while before I did it. It took me a while to come to the decision because of the ideas and judgments I had about what kind of person I thought that made me.

Ester: That’s one of the issues I think your work addresses so neatly. The subjects you photograph are in their own contexts, their homes, surrounded by their possessions. They seem so normal, comfortable, even affluent. The contrast with the amount that they owe is startling — and then, at least in my case, it makes me think, “Why should that be startling? What do you expect a person who owes $100,000 to look like?” So it raises a lot of important issues for me; it’s thought-provoking. But in your case, what were you afraid bankruptcy might do to or mean for you, and what was it actually like?

Brittany: Thank you. I really hope the work is thought provoking. In my case, I was afraid that bankruptcy would become a badge of failure, in some ways. That it would always be this reminder that I wasn’t able to succeed enough in my business to pay back what I had borrowed. Oddly, once I filed I really didn’t feel that way anymore. I felt angry at myself for buying into that stigma, and angry at our culture and our financial system for enforcing it.

Ester: Yeah. How much do you think the stigma is tied to the fact that debt is so prevalent in real life and yet invisible in the media? Like, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Micawbers of Great Expectations but I can’t think of too many other characters who’ve dealt in practical ways with owing more than they can pay. TV characters, as we’ve discussed on this site, get bailed out instead of having to make tough choices: IRL, Carrie Bradshaw would totally be living on Miranda’s couch and unable to get a line of credit, and Lorelei’s roof would have fallen in years ago.

Brittany: I think there’s definitely a strong connection. I agree with you, bankruptcy and debt isn’t really something you see on TV that much. I think the education debt crisis is something that’s definitely starting to be discussed a lot in the news, which is great. But yeah, from a social context, it’s rarely mentioned. Occasionally you hear about a celebrity losing everything but that’s pretty rare. I hope that that is changing because debt is a huge part of the reality that most Americans are living with.

Ester: So what has surprised you most in the process of doing these interviews and photo shoots?

Brittany: It’s actually just a hard question. A lot of things surprised me, in many ways, but when I really considered them, they weren’t surprising at all. Most people have very little education about how finance and the debt system really work in this country … myself included. No matter what background (I interviewed people with no high school diploma, and people with PhDs), there is very little understanding of economics, unless that is your career. So that was in many ways surprising, because after my experience, I started learning all these things about it, and thought I was the only one who didn’t know or something, but turns out, most Americans don’t.

Ester: Depressing but true. Thanks so much for your time! Good luck with getting the project funded.

Image by Brittany M. Powell and The Debt Project. Check out the Kickstarter for The Debt Project here.

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