Everybody knows the fight was fixed,
The poor stay poor, the rich get rich,
That’s how it goes,
— Leonard Cohen
Select any of the reports tracking the nexus of data on wealth statistics and statements. They all point to the same fact: Never before has inequality been so pronounced. Worldwide, the most affluent 1% of people own 40% of the wealth. Oxfam forecasts that by 2016, the 1% will own half the world’s wealth. Skeptics say we’ll have to wait until at least 2035 before that happens.
This isn’t new news, but it is a relatively new development. The massive accumulation of personal and corporate wealth began in earnest in the 80s, an era of deregulation in the markets and the rhetoric of lower taxation. In less than half a century, the global population has been cleaved into the haves and the have-nots. Instability in resource-scarce nations and global wars between nations wanting to secure resources (oil) tell us something is wrong. The Occupy movement here in the United States was an attempt by the public to tell the powers that be that something needed to change. And, yet, the income gap continues to grow apace.
In spite of the hard lessons of the financial crash the majority of us are not better positioned, better in recovery or better informed. How do we turn things around? Would it help if we could see inequality? Myles Little, a photo editor at TIME, thinks so and has conceived of 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality a traveling exhibition of fine art documentary images that make visual inequality.
“I sense a lot of pent-up frustration and disappointment around the issue of inequality,” says Little. “Not only in people I know, but also in public figures such as the Pope and President Obama. There is a feeling that the game is rigged, that the powerful play by a different set of rules, while everyone else is slipping further and further down the ladder.”
Little is currently raising cash on Kickstarter to fund the production of a photobook to accompany the exhibition.
1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality will travel to eight countries and features the work of 30 artists. Despite an initial offering of over 2,000 images, it proved — and proves — very difficult to visually depict the world of markets, finance and privilege. Money in the 21st century is rarely a printed material thing; it’s digital bits and numbers flashing across the ticker and along fiberoptic cables. Numbers go up and go down at speeds only computers can manage. The 2008 economic crash showed how we lacked control over the market’s own momentum.
“I’m especially thankful for Nina Berman’s work on hedge funds and Christopher Anderson’s work on Wall Street,” says Little of projects that are direct descriptions of the players and arenas of world finance.
While certain images — such as those of the forlorn old Greek man, or children harvesting e-waste — strike a chord and describe victim to circumstance, for the most part, it’s tough to encapsulate inequality in a single image.
“You can only photograph a thing,” says photographer Sasha Bezzubov, whose work features in the exhibition. “But a collection of such things can suggest an idea. As an idea, inequality isn’t particularly difficult to understand and most people, sad to say, are more familiar with it that they’d like to be. But for that very reason, it is particularly difficult to address with any degree of subtlety.”
How do you depict the underlying infrastructures of inequality? Jörg Brüggemann’s photo of a G8 protest and David Chancellor’s photo of a private security officer at a Tanzania mine both implicate a working class that orbits, but do not necessarily effect, those much more powerful and wealthy than they.
Juxtaposition can be a good tactic.
“There are several other images that speak to inequality by showing members of the working class in posh environments,” explains Little. “Whether it’s Guillaume Bonn’s safari chef and maid images, or Henk Wildschut’s image of workers installing a priceless Jeff Koons sculpture, or Juliana Sohn’s image of a laborer cleaning the Hollywood sidewalk stars.”
This week, Peter Georgescu, the chairman emeritus of marketing firm Young & Rubicam said, “We are creating a caste system from which it’s almost impossible to escape, except for the few with exceptional brains, athletic skills or luck.”
With inequality and financial struggle being a daily reality for so many, Little’s decision to avoid “brash satire or caricature” shows both restraint and respect. 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality is rooted in an understanding of American progressivist attitudes since WWII and the relationship of photography to the society such attitudes bred.
“You could say that this project is a rebuttal to Edward Steichen’s ‘Family of Man’ show at the MoMA in 1955,” says Little. “It was this magnificent, sprawling exhibit curated with documentary photos from all over the world that argued, in Steichen’s words, for the “essential oneness of mankind.” As inequality tears at the social fabric more and more, I believe Steichen’s thesis proves less and less true.”
Little selected works for the show to match the same themes of Steichen — family, religion, work and others — only in 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality the subjects tend to be the nouveau riche not the heroic middle classes and workers of the post-WWII era.
It seems like the United States is less united these days.
“Tax laws in the U.S. allow the very wealthy to keep more of their income than in any other industrialized country,” says Bezzubov. “According to the CIA’s Distribution of Family Income Gini Index, the U.S. is 41st out of 141 nations. It sits between Uruguay (42nd) and the Philippines (40th). Countries like Iran, Bangladesh and Ethiopia are all more economically equal, not to speak of the industrialized countries, all of which are more equal than the U.S.”
The reaction to Little’s proposed exhibition has been astonishing he says. There’s a hunger to take on these issues. And a new awakening to them.
“‘Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires’,” says Little quoting Steinbeck. “We treat the rich well in this country because we hope to, one day, join their ranks. But the likelihood of that happening, for most people, is slim.”
Perhaps that disparity between worlds is no starker than in Andrew Moore’s image of a man collecting scrap metal from the ruins of Detroit, and David Leventi’s image of an opulent opera house in Monaco.
As the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the majority in the middle are restless. Little thinks it’s a sign of the times when corporate America joins liberal pundits in decrying the current financial system.
“Mid-market companies, from retailers to hotels to restaurants, are taking significant financial hits,” he says. “Meanwhile, companies that cater to either the high or the low ends are booming. Companies are catching on to this and changing course to appeal to either of these markets.”
What the future holds is to be determined. Maybe the Everyday-Joe can be part of the decision-making? Certainly, Little wants to get you thinking. He hopes 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality starts a conversation.
“A conversation about economic fairness,” says Little, “about money in politics, about our priorities and values as a society.”
Putting the contributions of dialogue aside for one moment, Bezzubov draws back and takes a historical view. Populations can only be driven in opposite directions for so long.
“Income inequality is why revolutions happen.”
Support 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality on Kickstarter. Visit the 1% website. Follow Myles Little on Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram.