Saturday, September 12, 2020

Visual Markers of Poverty, USA

I spent more time than I ought to have on Tonika Johnson's "Folded Map" project, because it caught my attention. Notably, how difficult is was to distinguish visually between the poor and the affluent neighborhoods. Of course, some of the photos are obvious, duh, but not all. The differences are usually present but subtle.

As is my usual method, I sought context. Given that Johnson provides addresses, the obvious thing is Google Street View. Let's see what's nearby. No expectations, let's just go look and see what can be seen. It always enbiggens the brain, even when it provides no particular flashes of insight. So checked around 3 or 4 of the addresses, to get the flavor.

Mostly the pictures are just what they seem. Tidy suburban homes are surrounded by tidy suburban homes. Unkept lawns are surrounded by more unkept lawns.

In one case, though, the tidy suburban home (affluent) is surrounded by a startling sea of shitty low-rise apartment buildings. Now, these might actually contain expensive condos, I didn't immediately hop on zillow to price these things out (although that would be a good next step, if my interest led that way — which it does not). It doesn't matter. The point here is that Johnson had to cherry pick a little to get even the 6 photos of affluence that she shared with us.

I don't care that she cherry picked, we all frame our photos the way we frame them on purpose. That she had to tells us a little about how hard it was to find pictures that suited all her myriad purposes. It's possible she's incredibly lazy and couldn't be buggered to look very hard, but let's assume that she did work, and that therefore she was forced to use this house despite its context. This gives us a sense of how common suitable pictures were.

This matches my experience of America. The visual signifiers of poverty are no longer obvious.

100 years ago, you could tell in an instant a person's socio-economic status. The clothing, the hair, the skin, everything pointed toward class unambiguously. Later, in let's say the 1950s, there was still indications. You could tell things from a man's hat, from his shoes.

Today, as fast fashion, global shipping, and, um, extremely inexpensive labor in foreign parts has led to the ubiquity of new clothing in similar styles you really can't tell. In cities, like mine, with half-decent services for the homeless, even the homeless dress like everyone else. The skin of a homeless person is still pretty rough. Sleeping outdoors takes its toll. At the other end, past a certain wealth level, the shirts are still from Gap, but they're bought one size large and tailored to fit.

There is one notable exception, the well-off black person often dresses extremely well. I can roll in to a meeting wearing my usual shit, and people will still listen to me. A black dude, not so much, so he shows up with a killer suit and tie because he has to.

Mostly, though, the majority in the middle all dress from pretty much the same selection of styles and manners regardless of wealth. The clothes, hair, and skin are all equally clean because running water (sometimes even lead-free) and some kind of access to laundry are more or less ubiquitous in America.

Living conditions are photographically similar. The homeless and the extraordinarily affluent live lives that are visually, photographically, different from everyone in the middle. Everyone in the middle, though, lives remarkably similar looking lives. My friends and acquintances range, for reasons, from the homeless to the millionaires, and for those who are housed the dwellings photograph in remarkably similar ways. There are differences, but they don't jump out in a photo.

Affluence produces more space. My home is roomier than my friends in HUD housing ("council flats" for you foreigners), and less roomy than my millionaire acquaintance's. Space, as anyone who's tried it, doesn't photograph for shit. You can feel it immediately, but just you try to take a picture. Affluent people sometimes tend their yards better, but not all. Ask me how I know. The more affluent sometimes tuck the inevitable flatscreen TV out of sight someplace, whereas the poor don't have that kind of space. Eventually, a visible TV will be a photographic trope for "poor" just as "laundry on a line" now means, weirdly, affluent.

The exterior of a block of council flats obviously does not resemble my house, and that can be a tell, but not a reliable one. Blocks of expensive flats look a lot like blocks of subsidized ones. This is, of course, on purpose. That's policy. And that's the point, that's the trend: we've deliberately erased many of the visual cues of poverty, because that's a really good idea.

Besides space, the main difference is ownership. Poor people rent, affluent people own. This is perhaps the least photographable concept imaginable.

What this comes down to is that both Johnson and Soth had a real problem. Soth reached for "homeless guy" "boarded up windows" and "black" to indicate poverty, and primarily reached for "fashionable brand" to indicate affluence. Johnson uses "boarded up windows," "unkempt lawns," "black" for poverty and "non-black," "well kept yard" for affluent. To be fair, both are photographing Englewood for poverty, and damn near everyone in Englewood actually is black.

So how would you photograph the socio-economic divide between, let's say, owners and renters? It's well established that there is a wide and growing gap between people who own property, and people who rent. Yet, they kinda look the same. A house, a flat, does not change visually when it is occupied by its owner versus a tenant. People dress the same because clothes are essentially free and disposable.

Do you resort to the lamest of MFA tropes, and photograph documents? Or the other lamest MFA trope of photographing random shit and pretending that there's some allusions and metaphors in play? The thing seems unphotographable, from where I sit.

It is, at any rate, a difficult problem, and both Johnson and Soth illustrate for us handily that the usual tools do not work very well.


  1. Excellent, kinda Bellingham encapsulated.

  2. In my current neighbourhood, groups of freehold townhouses (not condo), the units inhabited by tenants have unkept lawns. Not 100% but it's a pretty reliable indicator. But the tenants are not necessarily poor, one of them drives a Range Rover, so who knows what that means.

    Years ago in Toronto, I was looking at buying a place in an unfamiliar (to me) neighbourhood and the agent took me there during the day to look at a place. I drove through the neighbourhood by myself that evening and saw that most of the cars on the block were nicer than mine and that most houses had nice flowerbeds out front. I concluded that the people living there were "classier" than me and I bought the place.

    1. Ruining Toronto property values one neighborhood at a time!

      Not all heroes wear capes.

  3. "Folded Map™" is a great project in many ways, *except photographically*. The photographs in "Folded Map™" are little more than posed snapshots taken with a DSLR. Literally anyone could have shot them. Not anyone could have organized the project, arranged the meet-ups and posed the subjects, but, at the end of the day, the pictures are adequate, no more, no less.

    Maybe the NYTs should have been cognizant of the project but, for whatever reason, it either wasn't, or was and decided on a traditionally journalistic approach to the same subject.

    This is not infringing on "Folded Map™", not legally, morally, or logically.

    "The Great Divide" (NYTs article) tackles the same subject, in a very different way. It also uses photography ... in a very different way. The photography in TGD is an order of magnitude better photography than "Folded Map™," as one would expect from a marquee photographer of the stature and experience of Alex Soth.

    The sleep of reason produces ... twit-wits.

    1. The photos of the houses could literally have been taken from Google Street View.

      But yeah, the project is conceptually strong, and she's hitting other media pretty hard. Video, interviews, a play. I honestly have no idea what the kerfuffle with Soth and the NYT is even about. They have not, as far as I know, produced a play.

  4. Cars are one clear marker of poverty. If the car is older, has visible repairs needed, scratches, or visible weathering on the paint, or obvious minor accident damage that hasn't been repaired, it's a poor persons car.

    Weirdly, the exact models of motor-homes that were a marker of the upper-middle class in my youth are now the ones that homeless people are living in. The wealthy mostly don't own them any more except for the few that seem to prefer 100 foot long three bedroom land yachts.

    I first noticed the motor-homes in 2009 in Seattle when a small fleet of them, all models from the 70s and 80s, showed up in our neighborhood and spent the next few years circumnavigating the neighborhood one parking space at a time (it's illegal to be parked in the space place for more than 24 hours in Seattle). I see them all over in Bellingham these days too.

    If the interior is disheveled, stacked with sleeping bags, or piles of stuff, has that "lived in" look, it almost certainly is someones living space. And that would be a much more interesting and dramatic comparison for these types of comparative picture projects but, of course, in america once you are homeless you don't exist so we can't be comparing fancy semi-mansions to run down old cars and motor-homes when we look at living space.

    Clothes are trickier but the give aways are brands that are out of fashion, sports team logos from other states or with old versions of the logos or mascots, shoes that are out of fashion, and the sort of mish-mashed over-all look that you see in pictures of people in 3rd world countries where charities are also handing out clothes donated in the first world.

    1. Cars are interesting!

      A few decades ago, certain kinds of Nice Cars were clear markers of poverty. Poorer, but not crushingly poor, people were the only people who drove Cadillacs.

      A boss of mine, long ago, once pointed out that you can sleep in a car, but you can't drive a house.

      This does seem to have changed. Some combination of the changing social status of "the car" and cars generally being less affordable (income down, prices up).

  5. While the NRA, 3-percenters and their ilk, and Big Oil threaten the American Way and life on earth, the west coast burns, a global pandemic ravages unchecked through impoverished and disadvantaged communities everywhere, the 'photoland' posse, aka The Three Stooges, have chalked up a game-changing victory over ... wait for it ... a skate park. High fives everyone. We Are Saved!