Picturing Capital: Mass Media and the Art of Visualizing Poverty

Caroline West

Advisor: Paul Smith, PhD, Cultural Studies Program

Committee Members: Alison Landsberg, Denise Albanese

Enterprise Hall, #318
April 30, 2019, 03:30 PM to 05:30 PM


Particularly since the turn of the 20th century, photographs have been used to visualize poor Americans for a variety of social and political ends during times of economic distress. As a consequence, there has been a prolific use of the “poor subject” in photography through the institutions of mass media and in art practices that continue to this day. As wealth inequality has continued to rise and poverty increase, the rhetoric used to describe the poor and the rationality on how to manage the poor subject circulate problematically, shifting in ways that complicate the economic and moral attributes of the poor and, in doing so, the aesthetics and narratives constructed to speak about and for the poor. As such, this dissertation asks, how does documentary photography respond to and shape shifting discourses about poverty within changing political economic conditions from the Depression to the 2008 recession? This question is posed for three historic economic disruptions in the United States: the 1930s Great Depression, the 1960s and 1990s neoliberal turn, and the post-2008 Great Recession. These three moments speak to shifts in the capitalist mode of production as well as the actual production and circulation practices of documentary photography in institutions of mass media and the art market. Through a selection of photographic case studies that address American poverty, I will trace how legislative reforms, evolving economic ideologies, and the production and circulation of mass media and art photography function as a conjuncture creating the terrain for which national discourses on the poor are codified. 
The documentary photograph of the poor subject aspires to counter simplified and negative social stereotypes; however, the result of these efforts often neglects the complexity and nuance in understanding narratives that address structural problems embedded in the capitalist system that perpetuates poverty. National policies and public discourses address only the symptoms of capitalist exploitation, making the assumption that the capitalist system is a rational economic base. These myths are naturalized across the social spectrum that produces hegemonic ideologies of the “American dream” and American work ethic that has conditioned welfare policy reforms and assures its rationality. Historically, practices of photography have been unable to resist these hegemonic national poverty discourses. In my analysis of projects visualizing American poverty, I am concerned with historicizing the visual documentation of the poor in the way social justice and aesthetics have been rationalized. I argue that these photographic projects exemplify the implicit contradictions in how documentary images can engage with poverty narratives in their historic time and the material and institutional practices of the images in circulation. They present poverty framed primarily on economic terms by judging progress through a materiality that ultimately maintains and stabilizes class-based distinctions. As such, the imposition of national poverty discourses on to practices of photography reify these discourses and emblematically places the burden of progress onto the backs of both the visible and implied poor subjects.