The 1% in Photos: The Lives of the World’s Wealthiest People
Myles Little recognized his own privilege during the morning commute to his magazine job in NYC. His project “1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality” uses the work of many photographers to examine extreme wealth. Little believes this to be the most important social issue of our time; as the fissure continues to widen, the essential oneness of mankind becomes less and less plausible.
Conclusions about the images’ subjects are inevitable, but not quite decided: Little takes pains to mention that today’s super wealthy are more meritocratic and self-made than ever before. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with Myles back in August, before he traveled for the exhibition of the images. The finished photobook is now available.
Emily von Hoffmann: The collection of images that you put together for this project first went viral this past summer, and you’ll be traveling shortly to accompany the exhibit in a few different countries. How has your life changed alongside this really successful personal project?
Myles Little: Thank you. Yeah, I’m going tomorrow morning to China first, for about ten days and I’m absolutely thrilled. It’s so interesting to bring a show about wealth inequality to a formerly communist country that is experiencing a great resurgence in wealth right now, unlike any ever seen. And I’ll be going partly to Beijing just to tour, but mainly to Pingyao which is an ancient walled city and UNESCO world heritage site.
But it’s traveling after that to every continent except Antarctica. So if you know anyone in Antarctica who likes photography, then I’m all yours. It goes to Dubai and Berlin and Lagos and back to China and then Guatemala, Bosnia, Australia, Chicago, Wales. I’ll be going to a few of those, as many as I am able to, given my day job and other things. But it’s been really heartening to see the project’s success because:
a. I think the photographers are some of the best in the world and they deserve the attention and respect, and
b. I think the issue is maybe the most important social issue of our time. Inequality is at a hundred year high in the U.S. and I just think that although people often intuitively sense that there is unfairness and inequality, the actual numbers are truly shocking. If you actually sit down and look at what’s going on, as I say in my statement, oftentimes the common perception of a wealthy person might be an athlete.
I did some research and found that in 2014, the highest paid athlete in the world was the boxer Floyd Mayweather. He made a lot of money, he made $105 million. But the same year, the highest hedge fund manager in the world made $1.3 billion, his name is Kenneth Griffin and no one knows who this guy is, you know, no one outside of the world of finance, and yet he is tremendously powerful and influential in ways that probably affect us all and yet we don’t know that he exists. We don’t know that any individual in the world in fact makes or could make $1.3 billion in a year.
EvH: This may be a naive question, but is it your impression, after your research, that most of these individuals are clustered within sort of “big finance”?
ML: The truly wealthy?
ML: Yeah. I think so, finance, hedge funds and of course there are great fortunes in sort of inherited old wealth, you know royalty etc. But to a large degree, today’s wealthy are self-made; maybe not rags to riches but these are people who do not inherit their money from their great great-great-great-grandfather. They are to a remarkable degree very hard-working, more meritocratic I would say than any elite in our history, very well-educated, very well-traveled and these are all really admirable things, which is not necessarily to say that it is fair for them to be rewarded so much, but it’s to say maybe that it’s more meritocratic than it was in the past.
EvH: It strikes me that that’s extremely difficult to criticize in a country like the United States where so much of the rhetoric focuses on meritocracy even though that’s dubious in lots of ways. Do you think the fact that people aren’t even equipped to articulate ideas about social class, here in the U.S., makes it more difficult for viewers to look at these photos and see something wrong with them?
ML: That’s a great question, I think that’s very insightful. I would say that there is a culture and a lot of celebration of the powerful by the powerless in our society. That’s something I tried to hint at with this photo of a disabled man cleaning the Hollywood walk of fame; I think it operates for me as a metaphor for that idea of celebrating people with whom we don’t share interests or a common future. We are fed beautiful imagery about that class through Hollywood tabloids and yet the chances, to be frank, of any of us including myself, of ever entering the class are slim, otherwise it wouldn’t be a 1%.
EvH: I read that you came across these photos during your work at TIME and it seemed to me that there is a certain activist quality to your angle. Was there an active switch for you, when you moved from an editor or observer, to someone interested in participating in this question?
ML: Well, I would say that I do try to acknowledge the complexity of the problem. Like for instance there’s an image from Harvard of some beautiful old wooden desks and to me that sort of tries to indicate that really admirable quality of education that you often see in today’s elite. And in fact Harvard has made huge steps in helping out the underprivileged to pay for their school, maybe more than most colleges have. I would say that some of the images like David Leventi’s image of the opera house in Monaco are just gorgeous, I mean that’s a beautiful building. I admire its craftsmanship, its beauty, I always liked to go to the opera house, no, I’m just kidding. But at the same time I am, as you know obviously, drawing attention towards the downsides, the negative consequences towards the environment, towards the working class, towards our sense of dignity. So I don’t think it is, and I hope I’m not coming across as villianizing anyone because you know compared to a large portion of the world, I am tremendously wealthy. By which I mean that I lead an incredibly luxurious life, you know, nice food and I have a roof over my head and I live in a safe country.
But I’m certainly concerned about the issue, no doubt about it, but I try to bring some of the rigor that I have been taught in my day job to this personal project even though they are not related. And while this is being done outside of work time, they do help and improve each other I think.
EvH: You talk about how the incredibly wealthy are hard-working and so unless we change the premise of the conversation a little bit, it’s still the case that many individuals are very moral and also incredibly wealthy. Because they worked according to the system that exists and existed before their lifetimes, especially in this country. So it sounds like you’re not trying to assign blame anywhere, but I’m curious who you think will be responsible for any change, barring the end of the world or something?
ML: Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economist, writes an essay about the economics in this sort of nitty-gritty question and he’s an expert in inequality and he makes some great points. He says, and I’m just going to quote very briefly, he says “inequality is not a fatalistic consequence of economic laws,”[that] it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. It’s a choice, and this is me talking, I think it’s very important that our tax systems get revised so that even while we tax income in a very progressive way, we don’t necessarily tackle wealth in a progressive way. So, income being what you make in a year, it was being part of a larger picture of total assets, maybe more of a gestalt view. And it’s for that reason that Warren Buffett can say “I pay a lower tax rate than my secretary does” because in the overall picture of things considering the massive amount of total wealth that he has, the actual taxes are very miniscule. So I think that’s something very important, I think, I don’t believe in equality as an outcome, I’m not a socialist or a communist, but I do believe in equality of opportunity. We all need to have a fair shot and if some people get ahead faster then that’s great, good for them, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that there is equality of opportunity in this country.
I mean, going back to taxes, the education system is funded locally, in America, so if you were lucky enough to be born into a wealthy neighborhood, your school is going to be better funded than the schools in a poorer neighborhood, so you are at a disadvantage from the very beginning.
Do I see change coming? I don’t know. On the one hand, I have been really heartened by the response to the show, and I sense I lot of pent-up frustration, a lot of excitement about starting this conversation. On the other hand I do, in certain other people or parts of the country, I see a passive response or even a celebration of the powerful, as I said before. I think that cinema and circuses are as relevant as they were in Rome, I think there are tons of distractions and ways to not have to think about problems that exist. Whether it’s Hollywood or not, there are more and more gleaming, shiny objects. So I don’t know the answer, I don’t know if major change is coming.
EvH: In your artist statement you used the example of the Wal-Mart heirs. Wal-Mart has obviously had some controversy about poor labor standards and exploitation of its workers even here in the United States. It seems like that is the thread, there is the fact that some people are disadvantaged from the very beginning, but then it seems like the wealth itself is not the issue but it’s the exploitation that often accompanies it in these really extreme cases. Do you think that’s accurate?
ML: Good question. Yeah, I mean wealth is an asset that can be used in any number of ways, moral and immoral and amoral. I try to convey that in the image of the high line Park in New York City which is beautiful, I don’t know if you know it but it’s a realway in New York that was partly financed by large private donations, you know tens of millions of dollars from the wealthy and it’s great. I love this park, everybody loves the park. This is one example of philanthropy, you know something that the wealthy have done that comes back to the city. We are just seeing it on a whole new level now with people who are using their wealth to save millions of lives. Or Warren Buffett who I believe has agreed to give away most of his wealth when he dies.
So, and of course wealth can be used for immoral purposes, so you’re right. The money itself may not be that much of a problem, but what we use it for is maybe more important. Are we buying cars that were made by exploited labor? Are we buying products that the manufacturing of which is harming the environment? Are we starting businesses that provide a service or simply make money out of thin air for a select part of the country?
EvH: Photography is incredibly powerful for the kind of ends that you are interested in addressing. But secondly, all of these are beautiful but some of them look like ads almost. Except when the viewer remembers the context that they are in, the images are so glossy and beautiful — I’m remembering a few of Manhattan apartments — I wondered if that’s part of the point that the same image evokes guilt and instinctive pleasure, and coveting. Do you think one of those instincts needs to win, or can they coexist in our minds and still allow us to hope for a resolution to this problem?
ML: Great question. That image of the apartment with an infinity pool is from a project that photographs tax havens all around the world, which are legal as you know; places where the wealthy corporations and individuals can stash their money to avoid the taxes. And Singapore is one of the capitals for this and that’s the Singapore skyline in the background. And what I find interesting about it is that there are a couple of layers in this, as you say it is just simply beautiful and luxurious, infinity pools have sort of become one of the markers of luxury for whatever reason, and for the second layer as I just said, the tax haven element. And a third layer, in my reading of it, I can’t speak for the photographers, is a sense of complacency in the face of impending doom, or catastrophe. The way I see it is this sort of strong diagonal line created by the edge of the pool, gives a sense of motion, gives a sense of flow of this water as it’s about the cascade over, seemingly over the side of a river, with the man in it. Of course that’s not going to happen but within the logic of the image, there is risk in this image and the sense of complacency in this guy enjoying himself and easily floating and when you put that within the context of finance, it takes on a new meaning.
But I like what you said about ‘can these two things of beauty and criticism coexist,’ and yeah, I do want to acknowledge in some of these how seductive and beautiful this world can be. I mean the world of the privileged as I say with the Opera House, or for example the little girl jumping up in her private home cinema. I mean it’s pretty nice.
EvH: So, finally, I liked your comment that there’s only three options for solving the wealth gap, and those are revolution, higher taxes or war. And I wondered if you have a prediction for which one will come to pass?
ML: Yeah, I don’t think war is coming to America, I don’t think revolution is coming to America, so I would suggest that it’s either going to be sort of incremental progress in government to rein in excesses and to change the tax zone and improve education, or it will be a complacent sort of continuation of the present course, or maybe a bit of both. I don’t see major violent upheaval coming to America anytime soon. And I don’t necessarily think that’s the best option, we need intelligent and compassionate leaders to make the country better for all instead of simply getting a bunch of violent people to overthrow a bunch of other people and whatnot.