In 2012, Brittany Powell was a well-established photographer whose images had appeared on National Geographic TV and in Fast Company, among other prestigious publications. But the Great Recession hit her hard and left her with so much debt she was forced to file for bankruptcy.
"It was a highly shameful experience for me, because so much of being a freelancer is kind of projecting this idea of success," Powell explains by phone. "And when you're totally in debt, it doesn’t really make you feel very successful."
But she didn't let the shame stop her from talking about her debt. Powell found the more she talked about it, the more people she met who could relate — which led her to create The Debt Project. So far, she has photographed 56 people from all over the country; eventually, she hopes her collection will grow to include 99 (a nod to the Occupy Wall Street movement).
Powell finds many of the men and women on Craigslist and pays them $20 to $30 to sit for her. She poses them in their homes, surrounded by their worldly possessions. She has put several thousand dollars of her own money to pay for travel and other expenses and is currently looking to raise money on GoFundMe to finish the project. The photographer will be showing the work at a gallery next year and is hoping to land a book deal. But at the heart of it, Powell's not looking to cash in; she's looking to change the conversation.
As of August 2015, the average American household carries $15,706 in credit card debt and $32,953 in student loan debt. In other words, Powell and her subjects are certainly not alone; this is a problem that touches all of us. Ahead, check out a few of the most inspiring stories unearthed by The Debt Project.