Some of the humans of 'Humans of HUD." U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development

The federal agency just launched a feel-good photoblog called "Humans of HUD." Just what are these portraits of real-life housing aid recipients telling us?

This week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a new social experiment called Humans of HUD. It’s about what you’d expect, if you were at all inclined to guess that the federal government was getting into the photoblog game. This new HUD.gov site features portraits of individuals (these would be the humans) alongside testimonials about their experience with housing aid (that’s HUD).

“Humans of HUD exhibits the best part of our agency—the people we serve through our programs, grants and initiatives,” said HUD Secretary Ben Carson, in a statement.

On the site, we meet Kevin, a single parent and resident of Columbia, Missouri, who shares his story about finding rental assistance through the Columbia Housing Authority’s Family Self-Sufficiency program. Shernita describes her path from public housing to homeownership through the Housing Choice Voucher Homeownership Program. Tiffany recounts some awful experiences with drug addiction and homelessness before she sought support from a Chicago shelter that has recently been named a HUD EnVision Center.

Thumb through HUD’s Instagram and the idea should be clear enough: It’s a straightforward riff on Humans of New York, the trendsetting portrait blog launched by photographer (and former Chicago bond trader) Brandon Stanton in 2010. Stanton’s formula was simple, elegant, and eminently rip-offable: pair a portrait of a real person with a paragraph and publish. Except that HUD’s Humans live all over the country, and they’re assembled here because they’ve gotten help from HUD.

“This is storytelling at its core,” Carson’s statement reads.

That’s right. Which means it warrants a closer look! Humans of HUD is not merely a federal communications platform, something that calls for scrutiny in any format. It’s specifically a narrative documentary project. Portrait photography and storytelling raise a host of critical questions all their own: issues of form, subject, audience, and author. These academic ideas might seem totally divorced from debates about welfare—when people in the housing industry talk about deconstruction, they’re not discussing Derrida.

But the relationship between politics and portraiture is fraught. Even though the stories on Humans of HUD are aiming for inspirational, this parade of people set off my alarms, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate. So I turned to an academic who studies portraiture in context—my friend Sarah Blackwood, an associate professor of English at Pace University and the cofounder of Avidly, a Los Angeles Review of Books site. Pictures of humans is her wheelhouse.

“It’s often hard to get analytic distance on uplifting, slice-of-life portraiture like this because these kinds of portraits are so overwhelmingly present in our everyday life that it’s quite difficult to really see them,” Blackwood says. “Also, I’d venture that most people don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them in a longer historical context.”

Blackwood is the author of The Portrait’s Subject: Inventing Inner Life in Nineteenth-Century America, a forthcoming book she describes as “a pre-history of the selfie.” Blackwood says that Humans of HUD neatly illustrates two historical and cultural functions of portraiture. On the one hand, there’s “the gauzy humanist ideal that portraits capture and reflect something real and deep about the people being portrayed”—a factor that may account for Humans of New York’s 8.2 million Instagram followers. The other component, Blackwood says, is “the bureaucratic function of portraiture, which is about tracking and identifying certain groups and types.”

Humans of [BLANK] efforts have a storied history in America. In the 1830s, portrait painter and traveler George Catlin set out on multiple expeditions to document Native American tribes across the West. His portraits were sympathetic, if romantic to a fault, but his purpose was perfunctory: American Indians were doomed, Catlin wrote in 1841, so he hoped to preserve “the living monuments of a noble race” by painting one man and one woman from every tribe. Until 2009, hundreds of his portraits hung in the Grand Salon of the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery.

Blackwood writes often about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, both former slaves who lived at the dawn of photography. In written works, they considered the dehumanizing trope of the fugitive slave notice; Douglass mulled the democratic potential of the emerging photographic medium. Blackwood explains how the abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote an introduction to Jacobs’s 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl that repositions it as a narrative suitable for white women.

Humans of New York suffers from its own colonial-gaze problem: It packages portraits and capsule biographies of immigrants and people of color in coffee-table books and Insta-stories. Arguably, it’s serving up product, not people. The same goes for Humans of HUD.

On its surface, Humans of HUD celebrates the department’s success stories. These posts have a common pitch. Self-sufficiency—a watchword at HUD under the Trump administration—is one of the four navigational categories on the site (alongside veterans, homelessness, and Housing Choice Vouchers). In his public appearances, Carson has elevated self-sufficiency as a pillar of HUD’s work. It’s cited in the stories of Chevelle, Tanya, and others.

There’s nothing wrong with self-sufficiency, of course, or with the Family Self Sufficiency program, which has helped households receiving subsidized housing or rental assistance to find a better financial footing in life for more than 25 years. But Carson often frames other changes and developments at HUD in terms of self-sufficiency, namely the work requirements and rent hikes that he hopes to institute for recipients of housing aid. The secretary is working to dismantle rules on disparate impact and fair housing, standards that protect minority homeowners and renters and push the nation to desegregate. That’s where things get problematic for Humans of HUD, both in terms of what stories the department is telling and what stories it isn’t.

Consider recent developments for a different category of welfare under fire from the Trump administration. In Arkansas, work requirements are being implemented for Medicaid in the name of reform; the result has been a purge of enrollees. According to Joan Alker at Georgetown University’s Center for Children and Families, an astonishing 8,462 people lost coverage in just two months. Medicaid recipients are required to log their hours online—a significant barrier in a state like Arkansas. This “digital redlining” may be a bigger challenge for those trying to meet work requirements than actually finding and doing the work.

Were HUD to allow states to impose work requirements for Section 8 voucher holders, thousands of families might lose their homes under similar circumstances. Where would their stories be shared?

Back to photography: Blackwood says that the idealistic and bureaucratic modes of portraitures have been through-lines for the medium since the invention of photography in the mid-19th century. “And of course they have everything to do with one another,” she says. Blackwood shares a line from Walter Benjamin, the cultural critic and philosopher, about portraiture from 1934:

“He says ‘the renunciation of the human image is the most difficult of all things for photography,’ emphasizing his sense that portraiture is indulgent and obtuse, that as long as we are drawn to it as a genre we’ll never achieve ‘politically-educated sight.’ I happen to love portraiture and don’t find it exactly indulgent—but there’s something to Benjamin’s prescient sense that portraiture is especially good at labeling as ‘human’ something that is really ‘political.’”

What’s human about Humans of HUD is right there to see. Mark’s story might be my favorite: The Louisville, Kentucky, resident explains how support from HUD helped him to escape the chronic homelessness he has suffered since childhood and establish himself as a barber. HUD’s script further describes how the department recognized the Louisville Metro Housing Authority through the Choice Neighborhood program. Grants from this new initiative are proving transformative for redeveloping public housing and turning around blighted areas like Louisville’s Russell neighborhood, and Mark’s profile is a personal angle into that story.

What’s political about Humans of HUD is readily apparent, too. By sharing sterling stories of perseverance, the department is building a narrative of upward mobility. In reality, the affordable housing crisis has only deepened since the Great Recession. Yet the Trump administration has proposed drastic cuts to HUD’s budget. Carson is pursuing legislative changes that would raise barriers to aid for vulnerable families. And if the GOP still holds Congress after the midterms, Republicans may turn to slashing social spending to offset the soaring deficits exacerbated by their tax cuts. Housing aid is critical for millions of poor households, and these programs work. But the view that the level of spending is sufficient or sustainable is a narrow fiction.

At the root of Humans of HUD is a suggestion that there is a need to “humanize” the people served by HUD, a corollary to a view held by the worst elements on the right that people who receive housing assistance (or Medicaid or food stamps especially) are somehow lesser beings. It’s cousin to the narrative about work requirements—that welfare recipients are lucky-duckies or profligate queens bilking the system—stereotypes that persist no matter how often they are proved wrong. These false narratives are bedrock policy priorities under the Trump administration, which over the summer proposed a reorg that would launch a “Department of Welfare,” a transparent ploy to consolidate and zero out the safety net.

Common across all these platforms—from Humans of the Great Plains to today—is the leveling gaze of authority, usually that of a white man (and now a cabinet-level agency). Humans of New York invites users to see all cultures and narratives as stories they too can share. It’s a feel-good melting pot, where viewers can sample types and caricatures at no cost and see themselves, maybe, as just a little more New York. Never mind that the portraits are all selected and edited by a single interlocutor. What Stanton chooses to see is offered up as a neutral census. (He now has his own show on Facebook.) There’s a history here, Blackwood says.

“Frederick Douglass had a different way in to many of these questions,” she says. “He said in 1849 that black people ‘can never have impartial portraits, at the hands of white artists.’ A number of 19th-century black writers were quite insightful about both the bureaucratic (and scientifically racist) function of portraiture during their time, but also the humanist idealization of portraiture as expressive of a sitter’s deep self.”

Humans of HUD is obviously lifting a page from Humans of New York. But they work in slightly different ways. HUD followers who mash the like button don’t then consider themselves recipients of housing aid, after all. But they might feel better about the notion of self-sufficiency after reading a personal appeal underneath a photo of a person who checks out as deserving. It’s a stream of sunny portraits that might be capable of convincing casual followers that self-sufficiency is working.

“The thing about Douglass’s insight,” Blackwood says, “is that it captures how for both the humanist ideal and the bureaucratic function: It really matters who’s making the image, how it’s framed, what the conditions of its production were.”

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