Freakshow for the Elites: Working Class Americans

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I’m usually a fan of the Daily Mail, but this absurd article that purports to show images of grinding poverty drips with condescension. The article features a collection of photographs said to be exhibited in Los Angeles in the near future. According to the article the photos are “painting a portrait of American poverty that many have never seen.”

Yet most of these photos show nothing that indicates any poverty at all, and seem to be photos of ordinary working class Americans. It’s not clear if the photo captions are from the exhibition, or if they’re written by the Daily Mail writer, but one photo which shows a happy-looking man drinking a can of beer, features a caption telling us that the man “guzzles” a beer. There is no guzzling to be seen.

Another man, with a freshly-killed deer, is apparently the picture of poverty. How a successful hunting trip signals poverty, I’m not sure.

Another photo features a scene familiar to many American men: standing around a car while talking. The caption: “Waiting for Godot: Five men, ages spanning decades, rest together on a truck and stare.” The use of Waiting for Godot, itself implies that the men are standing around absurdly waiting for nothing. While they stare at nothing. Again, there’s nothing in the photo to indicate poverty or despair.

A couple of the photos certainly make it clear that these are not exactly members of the ruling class. Some people are overweight and not looking particularly stylish, but only an artsy photographer and a British newspaper writer would think that such images necessarily communicate poverty. Indeed, many Americans have perfectly economically-self-sufficient relatives who look like this. Or they themselves look like this. They may not look like members of the cast of Gossip Girl, but contrary to what the editors at the Daily Mail may think, that’s a valid life choice.

Now, it’s possible that there are stories behind these photos, known by the photographer, that make it clear that these people are in fact slipping into crushing poverty. The assumption behind the DM article, however, is that the images themselves are proof of poverty. They’re not. The black and white nature of the photos makes the world look grimier, as black and white often does, but it’s not clear how a bunch of people living ordinary lives in rural America are to be gawked at like they’re some kind of freak show of the underclass. Only people who have lived lives of urbane privilege could conclude that these photos show a world “that many have never seen.”

10:05 pm on April 23, 2012
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