Here's What Being In Debt Looks Like

An eye-opening photo series.

In 2012, photographer Brittany Powell found herself in a declining economy with a struggling photography business and increasing debt. She decided it was time to file for bankruptcy. 

Instead of feeling ashamed about her position, she learned more about debt and spoke openly with others about it. She developed The Debt Project, a photo series where she would photograph and interview other people struggling with debt in their homes, surrounded by their belongings. She then asks them to write down the amount of debt they're in and the story behind it.  

"My inspiration for the project came from a frustration in the rise of income inequality in San Francisco, as well as my own experience with debt and filing for bankruptcy," Powell told A Plus. 

Powell pays the people who sit for her portraits $20 to $30. She has currently taken 50 portraits, but her project won't be completed until she has photographed 99. As in the "99 percent." Powell has already put thousands of dollars of her own money into the project. To fund the rest of it, she's created a GoFundMe campaign in hopes of raising enough money to finish the series. 

She hopes that The Debt Project will help to start a conversation about debt and reframe the shameful, negative perceptions surrounding the issue. 

So far, it seems to be working. 

"I believe the project has helped tremendously in opening up the conversation around the cultural stigma we have towards debt, despite how most of those in the middle class struggle with it," Powell told A Plus. "The individuals I have shot have expressed how cathartic it was to participate. In addition, I've had numerous emails from people who saw the work in publication and said it helped them feel less alone in their experience." 

Check out some of the stories from her project below: 


1. Danielle Brandon, Hair Stylist $12,324 in Debt

"In my early 20s, I got a credit card to 'build credit.' They somehow gave me a $6,000 limit. At the time, I never had money to pay bills and eat, so I decided to buy some new clothes. Why not? Soon that avalanched until I could not pay off my debt at the end of the month. Dental bills, car repairs, plane tickets, groceries, and gas were put on the card. No matter how I try to chip away, I can never seem to get out from under it, even though I live a frugal life."

2. Shareen Jallad, Massage Therapist $10,120.98 in Debt

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

3. Justin Fetterman, Professor and Writer Approximately $140,000 in Debt

"My debt started when I was married after college. I kept half when we divorced. The bulk of the debt is tuition and living expenses for putting myself through grad school. I finished my MFA last semester and am finally working in my field." 

4. Lauren Skaroff, Student and Waitress $64,000 in Debt

"I have acquired most of my debt from this past year of college in addition to living expenses, and my father being out of work due to legal and health circumstances. I am mostly living off of loans."  

5. Christopher Ard, GIS Analyst $56,760 in Debt

"I'm in debt today mostly because of student loans, but after Hurricane Katrina I make sure my new debt is because of experiences … like travel, visiting friends and long, extra-special lunches!" 

6. Wynde Dyer, Artist and Cabdriver Approximately $150,000 in Debt

"My mom took out a credit card in my name. From 1988 to 1998, she incurred 'a mortgage-worth of debt' (according to my bankruptcy attorney) on my SSI — mostly to fuel her compulsive shopping and hoarding habits. I have no credit debt, just about $3,000 to $5,000 owed to various banks and cellphone companies, and other evil corporations who hit me with erroneous charges. But I was an idiot and took out the maximum student loans available to me, even though I had a graduate teaching assistantship with a stipend and tuition remission. I have defaulted and interest has risen. I owed about $139,000 last time I opened a bill several years ago. So it goes."

7. Naomi Cohen Thompson, Art Therapist and Artist $75,000 in Debt

"Mostly school debt from 2008. Art therapy degree. Some consumer debt from living expenses, etc., when I was in school."

8. Ramon Romero Over $250,000 in Debt

"I 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." 

9. J.D. 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 job, and I've been under ever since …"

10. Mike, Architectural Designer $160,000 in Debt

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

11. Regina Hollis, Parent Partner, AmeriCorps $30,000 in Debt

"I got into debt because of student loans and letting someone close to me put a car in my name."

12. 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 and pay car loan, etc. When my ex-husband got incarcerated and left me as sole supporter of the family, I wasn't able to pay on 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 1 full-time 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 affect every part of my life and I wish I had been taught to prioritize handling money." 

13. August Golden, Nonprofit Care Provider Approximately $30,000 in Debt

"I am currently in debt for about $30,000 from a credit card used to pay for college in California. I have been paying this off slowy and likely will continue to for a long time or maybe I'll declare bankruptcy." 

You can check out Powell's GoFundMe campaign below:

(H/T: Refinery 29

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