Examining the 1% through the lens

With defiantly left-wing political candidates all over the globe sweeping to prominence on agendas condemning inequality, issues such as gentrification, wage disparity and the allocation of resources have moved from the academic lecture halls to the streets and living rooms.

With the public discourse beginning to reach fever pitch, Time associate photo editor Myles Little’s ambitiously international group exhibition One Percent: Privilege in a Time of Inequality grapples with this era-defining issue by depicting those at the top of the pyramid.

The group exhibition will be touring all continents, taking in Pingyao, Dubai, Berlin, Lagos, Lishui, Guatemala City, Sarajevo, Sydney, Chicago, Aberystwyth and Addis Ababa. Photographers exhibited include Zed Nelson, Christopher Anderson and Juliana Sohn.

“It’s a topic that’s hard to avoid these days, whether you’re interested in photography, or politics, or economics. The Pope has spoken very eloquently about it, even billionaires have spoken out against it,” Little says.

“Living in New York City, it’s in your face everyday. It’s Dickensian here, you see the best and the worst of everything very close together, getting little glimpses in your day to day life even if you’re not part of those communities.”

Inspired by conversations with Mexico-based curator Daniel Brena, Little pulled together thousands of images after trawling through archives, eventually whittling them down to a selection that puts the habits of the wealthy up for the viewer’s consumption.

Scattered among depictions of luxury are sober photographs that bring the entire spectrum into focus:, demolished houses making way for skyscrapers, domestic workers serving guests, heavily-armed security guards protecting gold mines.

The project has been met with considerable attention, and buoyed by the response, Little created a Kickstarter for a potential book. Raising $30,000 in 30 days, the “pent up anger” Little says is evident in the responses he’s getting is manifesting as a desire for a photographic acknowledgement of a vital political debate.

One of the notable aspects of contemporary capitalism is the proliferation of visual representations of affluence – in advertising, films, internet – but Little’s choices provide a cooler perspective. Photographers with a keen moral impulse have tended focus on the marginalised, as Little explains.

“As [photography critic] Geoff Dyer says in the text he wrote for the book, Raghubir Singh, the great Indian photographer, talks about “the abject as subject”, and that’s a long tradition going back to Jacob Riis, or Lewis Hine. There is also a long tradition of celebrating the powerful, like Roger Fenton, who frequently photographed Queen Victoria or Slim Aarons, lifestyle photographer of the rich and famous. But only in the past few decades has there evolved a body of work looking at the wealthy and questioning privilege from the likes of Martin Parr, Lauren Greenfield and Jim Goldberg.

“I wanted to contribute to that newer trend because in American culture I find this disheartening celebration of the powerful by the powerless. You see it through tabloids, Hollywood, some would say you even see it through our tax policy. John Steinbeck once said ‘the reason socialism never caught on in America is because the poor don’t see themselves as an exploited class – but rather temporarily embarrassed millionaires.’”

Little has curated a set of photographs with a thematic bent and an unmistakable perspective on a hot-button political issue, so is there a political intent?

“My intention was to simply start a conversation about fairness. It’s not to prescribe a specific monetary policy. I’m grateful to have Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, write an introduction, and he knows a little bit more about policy than I do. What I personally want to do is get people thinking and talking.”

The usual audience for a photography exhibition may skew liberal but despite the progressive slant, Little is keen for a plurality of opinion – from both sides of the aisle. “Whether they agree with me or not, I’d love to hear [the audience’s] opinion – tell me why this is totally irrelevant and unneccessary, or why you think it is important and how inequality has affected you.”

Little attempted to disarm himself of preconceptions as he dived into the project, yet still found himself surprised by what he witnessed – both in the images, and the reactions to them.

“I’m surprised by how much frustration I see in the audience over this topic, this pent up anger over what is seen as a rigged game. But on the other hand, I do see a lot of complacency [among the rich]. That’s something I try to address in Paolo Woods & Gabriele Galimberti’s photograph of a man swimming in an infinity pool in Singapore. There’s several different layers to that photo; certainly a sense of complacency, as shown by this peaceful-looking man in a luxurious setting who, at least in the logic of the image, appears to be headed for catastrophe.”

‘1%: Privilege in a Time of Inequality’ begins in Pingyao, China from the 19th to the 25th September 2015. Find out more about the exhibition and the upcoming book here.

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