FMP, Contextual Research - ‘White Working Class’

As my project has progressed, I’ve become interested in the way that white, working class communities are represented, not just popular culture, but also in the art world. Recently, I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Sarah Smarsh’s Heartland: A memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest County on Earth (the audiobook format is particularly impactful, being a memoir read by the author herself). Raised in America in a poor, rural community, Sarah Smarsh grew up knowing that the world considered her ‘less’ for coming from an impoverished community. 

“People of all backgrounds experience a sense of poorness—not enough of this or that thing that money can’t buy. But financial poverty is the one shamed by society, culture, unchecked capitalism, public policy, our very way of speaking.” (Smarsh, S. 2018)

Whilst Smarsh acknowledges that poor people of color are potentially the most vulnerable group, her story is about being White and poor. Of the term ‘White Working Class’ she notes - 

“The experience it describes contains both racial privilege and economic disadvantage, which can exist simultaneously. This was an obvious apolitical fact for those of us who lived that juxtaposition every day, but it seemed to make some people uneasy, as though our grievance put us in competition with poor people of other races. Wealthy white people, in particular, seemed to want to distance themselves from our place and our truth. Our struggles forced a question about America that many were not willing to face. If a person can go to work every day and still not be able to pay the bills, and the reason wasn’t racism, what less articulated problem was afoot?” (Smarsh, S. 2015)

In American popular culture, the derogatory term ‘White Trash’ is used freely, (this label is explored in-depth here by Leah Donella). TV shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty perpetuate stereotypes about white, rural, low-income communities. However, I don’t feel that these negative representations are confined to the world of mainstream media.    

In documentary photography, people living in poverty are so often depicted in dark, grainy black and white images. Matt Black’s Geography of Poverty is a recent example. Whilst I see the formal beauty of the work and understand that the images are very impactful, I also note the detached manner in which his subjects have been depicted. The people’s faces are always blacked out, the environment they inhabit seems alien. They seem to be presented as ‘other’, not as fellow humans. 

Matt Black, From the Series ‘Geography of Poverty’

In Stacy Kranitz’s As it was Given to me, I appreciate the raw, visceral nature of the images, but I feel like they perpetuate many of the same negative stereotypes regarding low income, white communities as we see in popular culture.

Stacy Kranitz, From the Series ‘As It Was Given To Me’

On paper, many of the people I have been photographing live below the poverty line. Many are experiencing economic hardship due to the difficulty of living in small, rural towns. In the communities I am photographing, I see the problems that so commonly accompany poverty - substance abuse, mental and physical health afflictions, inadequate services for vulnerable groups (namely children and the elderly). However, I never wanted to focus on the negative aspects, because I feel like that story has already been told. Instead, I wanted to photograph my subjects with warmth and dignity and depict them in a positive light. I have experienced nothing but kindness and generosity from my subjects, and I want to offer them the same through my work. With this approach, I hope to offer an alternative perspective on these often misrepresented communities. 

Smarsh, S. 2018. Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth [Audio Book]. New York. Simon & Schuster Audio. 

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