The Poverty of Excess
|Although I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer, my interest in portraying a range of psychological and metaphysical metaphors for the individual’s relationship to the world at large has led me to photographing environments and situations from life. Back in 2011 I had the opportunity to document an extreme cat hoarder house at a house in Plattekill, NY, and because of my interest in human neglect and desecration I jumped at the chance. I had no idea what I would find in that house, but the memory (and smell) of it is etched indelibly into my consciousness. I photographed the house, presented it on my website and made a few prints with the assumption that this would be a one-time project of limited scope, despite the strong response it received. However, in 2014 I was able to document another cat hoarding environment that proved to be equally disturbing and relevant to my interest in the previous case. It became clear to me through the visual clues and details of each environment that these were not just portraits of the inhabitants’ mental illness, but spoke to a larger societal phenomenon that went far beyond animal hoarding. The project began to take on new life, and then in 2017 I was able to document a third cat hoarding house and the connections were painfully clear and obvious to me. These environments were defined by poverty combined with excessive consumption; a condition which can only exist in a society where scarcity has been largely eliminated and even the most economically challenged segments of society can afford to surround themselves with an endless supply of food, clothing and other possessions. I have come to understand that these people who are clearly afflicted with mental illness are also symptoms of a much wider reaching malady that I refer to as the Poverty of Excess. I am also painfully aware that photography can never present an objective reality, and that is neither my desire nor my intention. My hope is that my subjective response to this phenomenon will at least shed some light on an otherwise hidden world and that the viewer can move past the initial shock and disgust toward a more sympathetic understanding of mental illness and self-examination of our own over-consumption.
My first encounter with an animal hoarding environment was a rundown house in an upscale neighborhood that had been reported to the Ulster County SPCA. The house had been recently purchased by a developer who wanted to tear the house down, but realized that it was illegally occupied and overrun with feral cats. I volunteered to document the conditions of the house as evidence for the SPCA to be used in any legal proceedings against the occupants. Although the photos document the physical condition of the house, they cannot begin to describe the overpowering smell and oppressive psychic energy of being in and around an animal hoarding environment. It was apparent that at least one person was actually living in this house with over 30 cats, as there was fresh milk and food in the refrigerator and a pot of hot coffee on the kitchen counter. The entire house was filled with garbage, feces, mold and the intense and highly concentrated smell of ammonia and rotting organic matter. Most of the garbage bags seen in the photos are completely filled with petrified cat feces, and the “mud” on the floor is actually fresh feces. At the time I considered this to be a uniquely horrific experience and felt compelled to share the images immediately. However, in 2014 I was called to document another animal cruelty case that was reported to the SPCA. This case revealed many similar characteristics; an overabundance of both fresh and rotting food, intense ammonia atmosphere, broken furniture, piles of clothing and other items, old posters and religious iconography, and of course cat feces everywhere. In fact, while viewing the photos it’s difficult to identify where one environment ends and the other begins. This case was particularly disturbing, as there is no legal remedy for living in the abject squalor that you see depicted in the photos. After over 40 cats were rescued, the occupants were allowed to return to the house with the only conditions being that they were not allowed to keep pets for a certain time period and would be subject to follow up visits from the SPCA to monitor compliance. Sadly, this was not their first offense, nor will this likely be their last. Then in 2017 I encountered an even more horrific case than the previous two. Due to privacy and legal concerns, I can’t reveal the details of the location or the circumstances surrounding this particular environment, but suffice it to say that it was terribly tragic and disturbing.
Legal and Ethical Concerns:
Due to the sensitive nature of this project, I have chosen to limit my description of the details due to privacy concerns, but it should be noted that all of the photos in this project were taken under the legal authority of local law enforcement to gather evidence for legal proceedings and are considered public record. However, as the original photographer I retain all copyrights to distribution of these images for any purposes beyond the courts and legal authorities. It should also be noted that these cases are considered closed, although investigations are often ongoing. Although I have the “right” to publish these images, I am uneasy about the potentially exploitative nature of them. I know this is a common dilemma faced by photojournalists every day, but as a fine art photographer I am not conditioned to navigate the complex social and legal ramifications of publishing such personal imagery without explicit consent. On the other hand, I feel that the images go beyond the personal and are important documents of a neglected and ignored social ill that deserves to be recognized and acknowledged. The issue of hoarding is deeply complicated and has no easy solution, but like many complex problems it can only begin to be solved by raising awareness.