The Debt Project

     Brittany Powell could not have picked a better weekend to visit Portland. Friday morning the sun was shining warm and bright through the cafe windows. It was the last weekend of summer. Book ended on both sides by rain, this was Portland’s last chance to celebrate a 90 degree day in the sunshine.  


    It’s 8:40 and Brittany walks through the door at Heart Coffee. I recognize her from her facebook pictures. Jen Siska, a good San Francisco photographer friend of mine, had recommended me to her as a photo assistant. We say hi, she grabs her croissant and coffee and says “We should probably hurry.”


    Our first stop was a young couple’s old apartment that’s snuggled against the I-5 freeway. Through the old single pane windows I could see the cars speeding by on the freeway and just beyond that was the Rose Garden. Bob was a Reed College graduate with a huge amount of debt. Along with our age, we had a lot in common aside for his massive amount of debt, somewhere in the ranges of hundreds of thousands. He too was from Southern California. I couldn’t help imagine that I was in an episode of This American Life. This was all too real… all too American. None the less, we were in and out in now time and on to our next portrait session.

     “Our next stop is actually one of the reasons I hired you as my assistant Matt. Not too long after confirming with this next guy via email he friended me on Facebook. Something about this guy didn’t feel right, so I figured it would be a good idea to have somebody there to help me in case any of these craigslist people turn out to be a bit weird.” We pull up to the address not really knowing what to expect. We meet the gentleman, a nice fellow who warmly welcomes us into his tiny apartment. This place was small and cluttered with things, some parts the house were very organized, some were just a complete disaster area. We get straight into setting up our lighting and recording equipment. It is then as we are setting up that he presented us with the question. “You know… I used to be an erotic photographer myself and I wouldn’t mind at all if you wanted me to take the portrait in the nude to really capture my vulnerability and essence in the picture.” Brittany responds with an immediate, “Um it’s not that kind of portrait but I’ll consider it.” We continue on with the project. Come to find out, he comes from a privileged background and doesn’t have much debt. The majority of the interview was just him talking about his life and ideas in consecutive rants. An hour later we packed it up, paid the man for his time and hit the road onto the next stop. The next man was a real life character from a Jack Kerouac story. He spent the majority of his young adult life riding back and forth across the country on trains. He had the train system down to an exact science and had developed a nationwide network of being able to arrive in any state and find migrant work. After that fine fellow we ended the day at an anarchist house in North Portland that consisted of ten people living in a modest size home that housed young kids passing through town. It reminded me of the kind of people who used to live in my neighborhood years ago before they got pushed out of SE Portland. I felt nostalgic being in that house and spoke with all the people living there. They made life work with what little they had. It was a well oiled machine, everyone did their part. Their walls were filled with thank you letters from people who were thankful enough to have a place to sleep. On the wall next to all the littered letters was a monthly gas bill that read "$2.50 each."


      On day two we traveled further down into reality. These last three homes were all located outside of Portland. One in Hillsboro, another across town in Oregon City and the last one in Clackamas The first stop was bright and early Saturday morning at a nice apartment complex located out in the suburban sprawl. Two guys living together from Boston, both were in serious debt, but both very kind. As we talked while setting up, Brittany got a text. She lets out a gasp that she tries to contain with her hand. We all pause. She excuses herself. It is now the three of us in the apartment not really knowing how to react to what had just happened. I tell the guys that I’ll be right back. Brittany had just found out that her mentor and long time friend of 15 years had just committed suicide. This is the life of a photographer, an art that we choose to live. I let her have her moment and then we continue on with the project. Onto Oregon city now, which was my first time in the city. I had once gone through it on the coast starlight months ago. It is a lot nicer in the summer. This interview took no time at all, so we decided to hold up in the town and grab lunch.


    Our final stop was in Clackamas. As we drove past the town mall I noted the fun fact that just a year ago there was a shooting in the mall that made national news. I’ve never really heard good things about Clackamas I continue to tell her. She says “Well this is why I hired you. Our next stop’s name is ‘Dragon’ and I believe he used to be in the service before he was discharged.” We pull up to the section 8 housing and park next to a giant cement wall that when you try to look over all you can really see blue sky. I tell Brittany “Doesn’t this look like a prison?” When we arrive at his door we read a very explicit typed out note for any guest. It says to take off your shoes, to not be wearing any body fragrance because he “hates that shit!” Brittany and I look at each other and then knock. Opening the door is 6’5 man who directs us to take off our shoes. We do but then he gets angry for taking them off outside. He gets frustrated and says, “Oh great, you’ve messed it up! Now I am going to have to vacuum! Great, just GREAT!” At this point I am ready to say fuck it and leave. But we continue on into the dragon den. We politely take off our shoes and socks and place them next to a pair of muddy army boots. As Brittany is talking to the gentleman, who is trying to keep his anger under control, I look around the section 8 apartment. It is full of everything "DRAGON." Stuffed dragon animals, dragon toys, dragon costumes, dragon pictures... everything dragon. We were in the dragons lair, deep down inside of the dark corridors of American life itself. The facade of the glamourous life of photography had been lifted. This was photojournalism. This is the harsh reality that takes real courage and drive to do and we had made the journey together.  I turn back to Brittany and signal that it is time to leave this dark place. She skips the hand written letter portion of her project and thanks the man for his time.


Click here to see the rest of Brittany's Debt Project

Brittany M Powell