Rich is better

The line, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Rich is better,” has been credited to actress Mae West, comedians Joe E. Lewis and Fanny Brice as well as entertainer Sophie Tucker (and many others.) My own life experience backs this up. A few recent experiences do that even more so.

This is not some whine about having over come a childhood in poverty. It is a bit about how by luck and intent I have moved back and forth between rich and poor. Mostly this is about what I learned by paying attention in that process, and the importance of observation, and that has everything to do with photography.

I grew up in a household where our socio-economic status fluctuated between middle class and working poor. It all depended on how successful my father was at holding onto the one of many jobs he ran through during his working “career.” I went to college (an expensive private college) on financial aid, largely because one of my family’s worst financial “bad patches” coincided perfectly with the years I was in college.

At different points in my working life I have edged up and down within the band of middle class myself. It was always fun to be on the upper rather than lower end of that middle class side. On the other hand I have been self-employed for twenty-four years so I am used to dealing with some economic instability.

As a photojournalist I often voluntarily (or for money) looked into and photographed a lot of poor people (and occasionally a few rich people.) Jim Goldberg’s 1985 book, Rich and Poor, does some of the same thing through photographs of rich and poor people, with the subjects own handwritten comments right on the photos. Together words and pictures give us an inside look at the American dream at both ends of the social scale. One of the many revolutionary aspects of Goldberg’s book was that he looked at the top of the economic scale as well as the bottom.

Most photojournalism, for better and worse, focuses disproportionately on the bottom end of that scale. That may be a function of the fact that there are more poor people than there are rich. But that is not what caught my attention as I was photographing both ends of the socioeconomic scale. Here is what I noticed:

Rich people, as a rule, are less trusting of strangers, have a much better idea what they will look like photographed, work hard to control how they look and try to manage their place in the media spotlight. Personal safety and preservation of that wealth may dictate these same behaviors, but most wealthy people I photographed took those measures to extreme. Since I do not photograph the upper income strata on assignment anymore, I can only guess that this situation has become worse with the explosion of media.

Poor people are “easier” to photograph since they tend to be more open to strangers, wear their hearts on their sleeves and usually dress/act the “part,” thus easily showing outsiders who they are or what they do. A whole argument can be made that these same things narrow the way that the poor are portrayed. My experience has been that photo editors have a similarly narrow range of expectations when it comes to photos of the poor. Photographers who stray too far beyond that simple definition do so at their own risk.

Recently, I lived for a while “on the wrong side of the tracks” or on the “bad side of town” or however you want to describe it. Last Spring, we sold our old house and in December we bought a new one. (We are happily enjoying the new place, thank you.) In between we lived in a short -term rental in one of Providence’s poorer neighborhoods. The irony was that the building itself was great. It was a loft space in a renovated mill, so when were inside, everything was new, modern and functional. As soon as you took a step outside though, things were different.

Much has been written about poverty, the causes of it, the question of is there a culture of poverty, etc. Although I have read a lot of that, this blog is not about that. It is about what I noticed when I was living on the “other side of the tracks.”

The first thing I noticed was how explicitly and intentionally the city government favors certain neighborhoods and by extension, ignores the decline in other neighborhoods. If you think the potholes are bad where you are, imagine living “over there.” Street cleaning, highway maintenance, road signage, etc. all were notably worse on the “other side” of town.

Private businesses carried on this neglect of the poor. Our auto insurance shot up when we moved “over there,” and has come back down now that we are “over here.” We are the same drivers we have always been but suddenly we became a notably “higher risk.”

It is well known that areas with a lower socio-economic population often lack good grocery stores. Residents of poorer neighborhoods fortunate enough to even have decent grocery stores often have to wait in line notably longer in those same stores. At least I did more than once as compared to waiting in line at the better stores where I used to live. Most businesses that I encountered on the poorer side of town were invariably badly run, shabbily kept and generally disorganized.

Clearly, the people living and working on both sides of town contribute to the positive and negative aspects of life there. The well-known New England courtesy (or is it standoffishness) that was common in the wealthier areas was sorely lacking in the poorer areas. On the East Side, where I once lived and now live again, people parked their cars on the streets with others in mind. On the far West side, where I lived briefly, street parking was much more Darwinian in a dog-eat-dog free for all. Now, with mounds of snow clogging streets, I can only imagine how much worse this is.

The final question then is which came first, the chicken or the egg, the poverty or the impoverished neighborhoods? Clearly, they feed off each other in some weird, almost self-sustaining feedback loop that goes on and on. Similarly, people differently buy into or push back against those attitudes.

One of the many things I found surprising during my time “over there” was not the amazing examples of people overcoming great depths of poverty. What pleasantly surprised me was how many if not most people looked past the dullness, neglect and banality of the situation they were in. They upheld a cheery disposition and a remarkably optimistic perspective. Then again, I guess in the face of the alternative, they simply made the wisest choice in terms of their own psychological self-preservation. If I had stayed much longer, I was afraid that I would have had an ever-harder time holding onto that alternative disposition.

One response to “Rich is better”

  1. Very interesting observations. Your ‘photo sensitive eye’ informs your ‘photo analytic brain’ and stimulates your ‘photo loving heart’. I too see the world through a lens, whether or not my camera is in my hands. Your thoughts have helped me verbalize why I always wanted to grab my camera when traveling or enjoying myself. And we so often heard “put that damned thing down, will you? Why can’t you just experience where you are”? I often felt guilty for wanting to use that black magic box as a world organizing tool. Now I know that our vision/perception is heightened and educated by using the black box as an information collector and distiller.

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