More than 100 people showed up Tuesday night at the Half King in Chelsea to get a glimpse of the world’s one-percenters.
Myles Little, who curated the photography exhibition “1% Privilege in a Time of Great Inequality” and its new Hatje Cantz-published companion book, walked them through a slide show. In his remarks and in a Q&A with New York University visiting scholar Jean-Philippe Dedieu, Little explained his approach to the project and the greater problem at large.
Explaining how he delved into the project, which was two years in the making, Little said, “I think America badly underestimates how rich the rich are. If you ask someone for the name of a wealthy person, they might suggest a famous athlete. So I looked up the statistics and Floyd Mayweather, a boxer, made the most money of any athlete in the world — $105 million in 2014. The same year the highest-paid hedge-fund manager [Kenneth Griffin] made $1.3 billion, and until I looked up that statistic, I had never heard of him.”
He also referred to a Harvard University study that asked people to pinpoint how much major chief executive officers earn compared to the typical worker. Most people said maybe 30 to 1. In reality, it was almost 350 to 1. But Little, a senior staff photo editor at Time, spoke of some of the upsides, too.
“I would say today’s 1 percent is more meritocratic than any [other] in our history. Think about it this way. Who worked harder for their wealth, Warren Buffett or the Duke of Edinburgh?” he said. “Today’s 1 percent is probably better-educated, better-traveled, very hardworking, almost international. They live in multiple countries. They have financial interests in multiple countries.They know and love people all over the world. And they wind up having more income with their other 1 percent than with their countrymen.”
Struck by an image of a filled-to-the-rafters 99-cent store, one attendee asked Little about the potential environmental impact that more even wage distribution could result in. While the 1 percent has environmental blood on its hands, Little noted that the 99 percent is a huge part of humanity that is consuming at an ever-growing rate. If we were to redistribute wealth downwards, we would create more and bigger consumers, and at what cost?”
Referring to Juliana Sohn’s 2005 shot of a legless man shining stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Little said, “What drew me to the image was not necessarily a sense of pity for this man. I respect this man’s very hard work, given apparent difficult circumstances. What drew me to this image was this idea of the powerless celebrating the powerful, which is something, that I think, we see constantly in this country. That is a key reason why I perhaps and not optimistic about the resolution of this problem. We are cheerleaders for people with whom we do not share similar interests, but who can very much take care of themselves.”
Referring to “The Grapes of Wrath” author, Little continued, “John Steinbeck has this great quote, which must be about 90 years old. ‘Socialism never took root in America because the poor seem themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.'”
Referring to a question about the power to control how one is represented, Little said he always advises photographers to shoot portraits of hedge fund managers if they are asked to. The upside being hedge fund managers are known to buy the entire shoot to maintain rights to the photos. Conversely, he said “For a street photographer who snaps a photo of a homeless person on Sixth Avenue, that person doesn’t have $30,000 to buy out your photo shoot….Perhaps hacking is a more potent solution than photography in revealing this hidden world. WikiLeaks and the Sony hack were tremendously revealing in a way that I could only hope to be as a curator, given the level of security and paranoia.
“Our culture is very good at making shiny objects literally and metaphorically. There are so many ways to distract ourselves in today’s America. We also are in love with the rich and with power…on the other hand, we’re seeing Bernie Sanders and the pope take a very, very strong stand against income inequality.”
As for his own approval rating, Little noted that he had approached 30 or so museums and 100 book publishers with his project. “I calculated my acceptance rate at 5 percent,” he said. “So the vast majority were festivals. There was one gallery, which was funnily enough in a Ritz Carlton in Dubai. That’s a good example of someone who doesn’t quite know what they are getting themselves into.”