Those who know me a little bit have probably noticed that I am often critical, or at least deeply skeptical, of the wealthy. This is true in relation to the wealthy as a class. Individuals, of course, are just that.
I’ve been accused of hating the rich, which is simply not true these days. I don’t hate anybody, and I consider no one an enemy.
I confess, however, that for many years I did hate the rich. I spent many of the formative summers of my youth and adolescence at a segregated country club where my father was a member. Mom would drop me off early in the morning for swim team. After practice, I’d usually play a round of golf with friends. Then I’d spend the rest of the day hanging out at the pool until mom would pick me up in the evening.
So I got to know the rich, or at least snobby people who considered themselves wealthy, pretty well; and I really came to despise them. African-Americans could be neither members nor guests, and they were constantly referred to in racist terms. I don’t know if the club discriminated against Jews. I don’t recall there being any Jewish members, but I really didn’t have any concept of Jews being distinct from whites at the time, so maybe there were Jewish members. Thinking back, however, I kind of doubt it. None of the people I now know to be Jewish were members.
But it wasn’t just people of African descent, and possibly Jews (there were no other ethnic groups in our little town back then). The club members, particularly the older ones, were snobs towards anyone they considered “not the right sort of people,” many of whom were white folk with as much, or more, wealth than the country club snobs themselves. Looking back, I think that pretty much anyone whose work might raise a sweat was considered “not the right sort of people.”
I came to see these country club folk, those leading citizens, as little different than the criminal class who bought and sold drugs, committed petty thefts and vandalism, and generally hated the straight world; only they seemed worse for their hypocrisy. I figured I’d rather be a member of the criminal class than the country club. Fuck those assholes and the golf cart they rode in on. That was my motto.
Anyway, my close proximity and inevitable run-ins with these assholes gave younger me a generic hatred for the rich, at least for the country club variety, but as I quit going to the club in high school, and then went off to college and the world, all that mostly faded from mind. It would really only show up in knee jerk type reactions. While most people’s knee jerk reaction was to admire the rich, mine was always to question them. Not for a nanosecond did I ever believe they were better than anyone else, nor more honest or moral.
But then when I got to New York, I came to know a whole different level of rich. Part of it was working with CEO’s and top executives in my various jobs. Most of it was through my kids’ schooling, as both of them went to one of the better independent schools. For the ten years I had a child in an independent school, and also in the year-plus I spent researching them before picking a school, I came to know many wealthy people, several of whom are actual billionaires. I also came to know their children, their children’s teachers and have an intimate knowledge about the independent school systems in which they are educated.
In short, I met many good people, and was incredibly impressed with how the wealthy are educated. In many ways, the people I knew actually are better. Not for their wealth, but for their open-mindedness, high level skills, and genuine care for their children. Of course I know that a small sample of decent New York liberal rich folk does not absolve the whole class, which I’m sure is still better represented by country club assholes in the sticks; but it did help me let go of those old childhood hatreds.
Still, although I was able to stop hating the rich; my hatred for the system that creates and perpetuates their wealth grew exponentially. I saw close-up how the advantages of wealth play out for the children of the wealthy. I experienced first-hand the incredible advantages kids get by attending the best independent schools, and going on to the choice colleges – not just for the actual educations, but for the networking as well. In the competition for good jobs, the odds are horribly stacked in favor of rich kids. Most regular, middle class people truly have no idea what their kids are up against.
I think that photography, especially documentary photography, has to be one of the worst professions in terms of favoring the wealthy. Photography is an activity that a lot of people really enjoy practicing. With the devastation of the old-time publishing industry and the ubiquity of high quality cameras, there are few photography jobs that pay more than diddly squat. And, if you take the most tried and true road to success, it costs a lot of money to fly all over the world and spend long stretches in war and/or poverty zones.
A regular kid with a passion, through study, hard work and skill may be able to pull it off, but it’s a hell of a lot easier for a trust fund kid to pull it off with the same hard work, granted, but with money not being much of a concern, and having been better prepared skill-wise through school and maybe workshops – and possibly knowing, or his or her parents knowing – editors, publishers, curators or NGO directors who can hire them or get them work.
So I try real hard not to blame the wealthy and connected photographers who benefit from the system. From what I’ve seen, they are for the most part decent, caring and talented individuals. But I do blame the system that gives them all of those unearned advantages.
Everyone should have access to great education. No one should be born a prince. We should all start out as commoners. Then, we’ll see who rises and falls. Then, we can feel much better that they truly earned whatever it is they got.