Photographers have long played a special role in capturing what it means to be poor in America. People like Dorothea Lang, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks helped illustrate what it was like to live in hunger and face material hardships.
But as the country has changed, so too has the face of poverty.
Steve Liss, the project director for AmericanPoverty.org — an organization of photojournalists looking to alleviate poverty in the U.S. — tells NPR's Michele Norris that he and fellow photographers are seeing "how thin the line is between middle class, working poor and poverty."
Liss and a group of photographers started the project "In Our Own Backyard" about five years ago. Liss says they have seen change in that time.
"We're seeing a tremendous increase in families who are seeking services," he says. "We're seeing a tremendous increase in people would not normally have considered themselves vulnerable."
Liss says the poverty is in places you wouldn't expect.
"You see abject poverty 100 miles south of Chicago in Hopkins Park, Ill., you see people living in huts with mud floors in Third World conditions," he says. "If you go up to rural Maine, you see children living in trailers with holes in the floor and no heat in the wintertime. These are things that people don't see, and that's largely because I think the mainstream media hasn't really fulfilled its obligation to provide that kind of imagery, to provide those kinds of stories so that people can engage."
That's his and his fellow photographers' goal — to "take invisible poverty and make it visible once again," Liss says.
"I don't think people really understand or have had the opportunity to see the new face of poverty and that's something that we're endeavoring to do."
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
Steven Liss is the project director for AmericanPoverty.org. That's an organization of photojournalists that's looking to alleviate poverty in the U.S. Welcome to the program.
STEVE LISS: Thank you. Thank you for having me.
NORRIS: Based on what you're seeing in your lens, how has the face of poverty changed?
LISS: On the other hand, we're seeing a tremendous increase in families who are seeking services. We're seeing a tremendous increase in people who would not normally have considered themselves vulnerable. I mean, I think what we're seeing very clearly is just how thin the line is between middle class, working poor and poverty.
NORRIS: You know, how does - help me understand what you capture then? Because, you know, when you - and again, I have in mind those pictures from the Great Depression where people focused on empty refrigerators, distended bellies, homes that had dirt floors or were little more than shacks. And in that sense, that sort of beautiful portraits of great poverty helped create a very strong impression on America. When you go into homes and you photograph people who are living in poverty now, what do you see?
LISS: You know, I very often see the same thing, and the interesting thing is in places that people wouldn't expect. You know, you see abject poverty 100 miles south of Chicago. In Hopkins Park, Illinois, you see people living in huts with mud floors, in Third World conditions. If you go up to rural Maine, you see children living in trailers with holes in the floor and no heat in the wintertime. These are things that that people don't see, and that's largely because, I think, the mainstream media hasn't really fulfilled its obligation to provide that kind of imagery, to provide those kinds of stories, so that people can engage.
NORRIS: Do you also find poverty, though, in more surprising places? Would you see it in, you know, communities of tract homes in the suburbs or high-rises and even in a place like Chicago?
LISS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, it - our goal in the course of this effort is to take invisible poverty and make it visible once again. Now, that's hard to do because, as you say, you go into the tract homes and all, and everything looks just fine, but then, you go to the Catholic Charities relief center in that community and you find people there, families there that you never would have found before. We've seen in the course of the four or five years that we've undertaken this project, we've seen the change, and it's startling. And again, I don't think people really understand or have had an opportunity to see the new face of poverty, and that's something we're endeavoring to do.
NORRIS: The nature of photography has changed much in the last 10 years with the advent of...
NORRIS: ...digital photography and images that are lasting but also fleeting. They just sort of flit on small devices and don't sort of live and last in quite the same way. Has the role of photographers and reporting and capturing poverty changed as well?
LISS: I think it always changes as the media changes, but in the final analysis, not really. I think that the - look, if you're doing advocacy, the fact of the matter is anecdote trumps facts every time. I think that to - what can photography do? Photography can humanize the situation. Photography can let us see these people, let us begin to understand who the people are who still suffer in this richest of countries, and I don't think that's changed a bit.
NORRIS: Steven Liss is the project director for AmericanPoverty.org. He's also a professor at Columbia College Chicago. Mr. Liss, thank you very much.
LISS: It's my pleasure entirely. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.