This is What Privilege Looks Like in a Time of Global Inequality
For over a century, photographers have trained their lenses on the impoverished. It’s time to take a closer look at wealth
Lake Las Vegas/Macdonald Ranch 05.2012
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Sixty years ago, arguably the most famous photography exhibition in history—Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man,”—opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, proclaiming the “essential oneness of mankind.” Today, as income inequality approaches a peak unseen since before the Great Depression, it becomes increasingly apparent that we must reconsider that claim.
Hoping to fuel that conversation, Myles Little’s “1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality,” examines wealth through the work of 30 of the world’s most distinguished contemporary documentary photographers. The exhibition will travel to five countries—China, Nigeria, UAE, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Whales—starting this fall, and, pending a Kickstarter campaign (until Aug. 13, 2015), published as a book through Hatje Cantz, featuring introductions from Geoff Dyer and Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. We spoke about the process behind the project and the universal relevance of picturing privilege.
You’ve been working on this project for about two years. What about the topic was so interesting to you that you chose to invest such a sustained focus on it?
I think that we are a country in love with wealth. It has an undeniable allure—of course, an allure burnished by billions of dollars worth of PR and Hollywood. We respect and adulate the wealthy here in America and always have. There’s a great John Steinbeck quote:
We all hope to one day be millionaires so we celebrate them and cut them tremendous slack.
And sometimes vote against our own interest, too.
Absolutely. Personally speaking, living in New York City is pretty Dickensian, as you know. You see the best and the worst—horrible reports of violence, and under-education, and malnutrition, in a city that will serve desserts that literally have gold in them. So being here certainly makes it a topic on my mind.
You had a topic, where did you go from there? Were there particular photographs in mind, or were you thinking of photographers that you always wanted to see together in a group show? What was the research process like?
I cast a very wide net at first, going down the rabbit hole online of various well-known photo agencies—Magnum, NOOR, VII, Panos, etc.—just typing in keywords and seeing what I got, pulling low res images, and getting frustrated, and not knowing the way forward at times, feeling like I hadn’t found my voice or my path in this thicket of images. I sensed that I didn’t want to go over the same old caricatures and stereotypes. I didn’t want to do a show of, you know, awesome cars and crazy mansions. It took a long time of thinking about it or simply leaving the project alone and moving away from the project entirely and coming back to it before I realized a particular aesthetic.
The color, medium-format documentary style—a style that feels precious, that feels inaccessible, medium format photography being more expensive than cell phone photography or even DSLR photography. These are high quality objects that you can produce with such a camera and I wanted to make the form of the show mirror its spirit. I wanted the form to be exclusive, and expensive, and inaccessible, just as much as the subject itself. You might say I wanted to take the language of nobility—quiet, restraint, silence, beauty—and use it to critique nobility, to critique privilege.
Where does the work fit within the history of photography, which has long been engaged with issues of poverty?
I thought of many different ways to frame this project and I hit upon one, to make this project respond to Edward Steichen’s famous 1950’s MoMA show, “The Family of Man,” which as you know was this sprawling, inclusive documentary show including images from famous and obscure photographers from all over the world and it argues that we’re all in it together despite our differences. And I don’t think that’s true, at least now. I think that the 0.1% or 0.01% is skyrocketing ahead of everyone else in this world, and plays by a different set of rules and lives in a different set of material circumstances, and speaks differently, inhabits an entirely different ecosystem that is closed to most of us. Which is all to say that I wanted to respond to “Family of Man” with a different thesis. Steichen was looking at family, he was looking at work, he was looking at leisure, and religion, etc. In my own way I looked for similar images that would fall under similar categories, except, only of the 1%.
The Steichen show included hundreds of photographs. Yours features 30. What is the value of being so selective? It’s such a sprawling topic…
I worked with good photos and many of them came from distinguished photographers. I worked hard to whittle down and only include images that were distinct and didn’t overlap in any major way, and each spoke to distinct themes and ideas, so it’s ultimately very small. The editing is a painful process. A show that started with maybe 2000 photographs, gone down to 30. If you choose an image that is visually beautiful, and image that has an obvious surface meaning but also perhaps maybe a secondary level of meaning, and if you give it space to breathe and you don’t overcrowd the show, then I think small is the way to go.
Some of the images are fairly literal representations of wealth and privilege—the David Leventi for instance. Some of the images accomplish that through visual, sometimes ironic juxtaposition, like the Juliana Sohn or the Greg Girard picture from Shanghai. Then there are some images where the theme isn’t really visually apparent at all, until you register the caption—like the Shane Lavalette. Others still, like the Kevin Cooley picture from Brooklyn, show little obvious connection to the theme either visually or through the caption, to me at least. Can you talk a bit about how an image like that [Slide 10] functions?
What drew me to that image—seeing these beautifully thin, elegant, glowing airplane trails streaking through the sky in sort of patterns of pure light literally above the fray, above the working class Brooklyn neighborhood, above the 19th century copper-wire based electrical pole technology, which has a similar visual pattern of thin elegant lines streaking through space, but represents a very different technological stage. What I like was, while yes it is a picture of passenger planes, conceivably none of which actually hold any wealthy people, I did like the visual metaphor of comparing the beauty and elegance of light with the more run down grubby reality of life on the ground. I think, to sort of extend the metaphor further, so much of the financial world moves at the speed of light where even fractions of a second can make or break a big deal, or make you a ton of money if you’re a trader, so it’s certainly a different kind of image from some of the other ones, but the way I see it, it is an image that compares, almost like the Greg Girard.
How did you approach photographers in the show and how did they receive your inquiries? Did you go through agencies? Did anyone decline to participate?
It was pretty simple. To demystify it a little, I went on their website and just found their email addresses. Most people are very quick to respond and gracious, and sometimes I would have to pester them, probably annoyingly call them, etc., some of the more busy ones. But it was really more of a one-on-one conversation rather than going through galleries, even though several of these people are gallery or agency represented. There were certainly a few people that weren’t interested. There was somebody who took some beautiful photographs of winter sports, and there was this one image that had this visual metaphor of the elite vs. the proletariate, in my eyes. And she didn’t quite see it that way, and I respect that. She is more concerned about nature conservation, preservation, rather than wealth inequality as it plays out in recreation, and that’s legitimate. You have to respect the makers, the people who are putting themselves on the line to bring beautiful work to the world.
Do the photographers send you files that you then turn into prints? Do they just send you prints for the exhibition, for the traveling show?
I don’t have one set of framed prints that I ship around the world, partly because some of my shows overlap, partly because it just costs a lot of money and time and effort to ship a huge photo show. So instead, every one of these venues has actually agreed to print and frame the show anew, each time, which really simplifies things for the photographers and I. I did have to explain to the photographers quite carefully that these venues are working with professional printers and will make as good prints as possible, but it’s not something that you will oversee personally, simply because they are all over the world. So yes the photographers sent me very high res files which I then pass on to the venues.
And what about the Kickstarter rewards, how is that all organized?
As far as the Kickstarter goes—I didn’t ever really think about turning this into a book, because I’d never done anything like that before, and I just didn’t know how that worked. One of the photographers in the show—Paolo Woods—told me I should consider it for a book, so that’s the seed in my mind. I shopped it around to, I don’t know, dozens—I have a huge Google Doc list of publishers. I read a book called Publishing Your own Photography Book by Darius Himes, which is fantastic, and they give you advice on sort of shopping your pitch around. Most people didn’t respond. A few people said no, and three people said they were interested. But Hatje Cantz, the German publisher I eventually went with, just struck me as extremely professional, very passionate about photography, knowledgeable about bookmaking and paper stock and appropriate sizes for different projects.
The thing about publishing these days—there’s not a lot of money in it, so what some publishers will ask you to do is they will fund part of the project and you will fund the other part—that’s basically how I’m doing it. So I organized a Kickstarter, and it is a lot of work. I’ve been warned before that it is, especially when you’re deciding what rewards you choose to give to people who are donating money, the book or the print or whatever. What if you have 30 different photographers, how do you juggle the different prints, the photographers’ different requests on editioning, availability of those prints? It worked out in the end and have had a good response so far, but it is scary, a little nerve wracking.
What would you say photographers get from contributing prints to the show, prints to the rewards of the Kickstarter, and then to being published in the book?
If my Kickstarter is successful, I’ll pay them a fee for using the photo in the book—I’ve already budgeted that into the equation. For the print exhibit, the venues aren’t paying me or the photographers and I don’t have any money myself, but I would say that they have, in addition to the fee, they have an opportunity to be in the company of some of the best photographers in the world, at least in the documentary genre. It’s an issue which is extremely important and I think is very much on peoples minds, whether you’re president Obama or the Pope or just Joe Schmoe from down the street, so I think that this is a project that has potential to get photographers in front of a lot of eyes.
So given that you’re a photo editor at TIME and you contribute to LightBox, you’re in some way an insider putting together this exhibit. I’m curious how your experience, with press people and other peoples’ exhibitions, etc., informed your strategy on how you would promote and develop your own show?
I always appreciate it when photographers who are having shows who are pitching me to be represented on LightBox, I appreciate it when they’re polite and when they’re enthusiastic and considerate of our busy schedules. I try and I continue to try to do the same. I try not to be too precious about details–like, not everybody is going to run this across the front page of a global magazine, and I understand that.
I hope I’m being concise and direct in what I write about the show. I wrote out a speech for the Kickstarter and I revised it, and revised it, and I recorded the audio and showed the draft presentation to friends. I think it’s very, very important that you prepare that speech ahead of time for that video, which is very essential, and very short—mine is around three minutes. It’s a sharable more engaging way to communicate than just a paragraph of dry text.
Hopefully as I’ve been pitching this, I respect people’s time and disinterest if the case may be. I’ve made a very strong point of if I’ve ever been declined—and it’s happened a ton, let me tell you—for whatever reason, I write back immediately, and I say I totally understand and I do appreciate your time, or something to that effect. I don’t argue—they have their own reasons, they have their own priorities, and there’s nothing to be gained by raising a stink.
It’s interesting to me that on the website for the show, you’re actually revealing all 30 of the images, and they are hosted at a pretty usable size, for web purposes at least, with all the photographers’ bios clear and concise, and bulleted statistics… That seems like a good strategy to help it spread through the internet.
Yeah to me, in the gallery world, which is a world I don’t totally understand, there seems to be a strategy of withholding, and I think people think that is a strategy for power and allure, and my concern is more not to withhold, but to give and to start a conversation. If it means spending time to write a couple paragraphs of text and put on decently usable jpgs on a website then I’m happy to do that.
It’s a theme that affects the whole world, indirectly or directly. And the statistics are absolutely insane. I read from a good source that:
So I want to start a conversation. I’m not sure that photography can do a whole lot more than that, but it’s the little amount of power that I have so I want to use it.