When something’s forbidden, banned or considered taboo, the interest around it increases. That’s just how it is. LA-based photographer Buck Ellison experienced this same interest and attraction towards whiteness, class and privilege as a kid because he wasn’t supposed to speak about it and because there was a mysterious aura around those topics – “even as a kid, this silence around class and inequality fascinated me,” he tells us.
In Living Trust, his new monograph, published by Loose Joints, the artist explores white American privilege through a photo series that, not wanting to point fingers at individuals, uses models to examine the manners, gestures, and behaviours that perpetuate inequality. “I knew, intrinsically, we weren’t supposed to talk about it. It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” he says. Social classes, privileges, inequality… these are words that bother most people. But perhaps that’s why it’s even more necessary to talk about them openly and publicly. Buck Ellison has been willing to do it.

Aiming to translate somehow the prose of authors like Jane Austen, John Dos Passos, Edith Wharton, or Virginia Woolf into a photographic language, the artist has created a visual narration that speaks about a universal problem: wealth and assets are not fairly distributed but concentrated in the hands of the few. Now, we speak with him about his new book, whiteness, privilege and inequality in the US and around the world.
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Could you tell us about your background?
I grew up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. I’m now based in LA.
With this recent work, you approach photography from a social point of view, using it as a way to document a part of today’s reality. But has it always been like that? How has your conception and your use of photography changed from your earliest works till now?
I started bumbling around with a camera when I was 15, so hopefully, I’ve honed my skills a bit since. But even as a kid, this silence around class and inequality fascinated me. I knew, intrinsically, we weren’t supposed to talk about it. It’s an uncomfortable feeling. People tell me they see this in my pictures – this attraction and repulsion towards the same subject.
You have dedicated your first monograph to the investigation of the visual language of white American privilege. But to know a little more about this interest, when did you realize that there was a considerable inequality among the American population?
Privilege is a tricky word because it lends itself to policing behaviour. As we judge rich people for working hard or being lazy, giving money away or keeping it, we miss the point. To say someone inhabits inequality incorrectly implies that it might be possible to inhabit it correctly, which isn’t possible. It’s a frustrating term, as it draws attention away from the social processes we could be talking about.
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As far as I know, you’re a white American guy, so you’re part of that privilege too in a way. How easy or hard is it for you to photograph a stereotype you might fall into?
My images are shot close-up. I wouldn’t be able to make my critiques were I not raised in the world I’m examining. Moreover, such criticality is common among graduates of ‘elite schools’. In our self-assurance with our political leanings or social goodness, we shore up a deservedness of our class position that helps us to ignore the growing inequality around us. At the very least, we don’t see ourselves as to blame. I don’t want to take part in this.
Tell us more about the research and documentation process behind this project – I imagine you had to work a lot on this since it’s been theorized and in these past years, it’s become a very talked-about topic.
I read novels in art school. It felt like there were more writers who focused on social codes and customs than artists. Jane Austen, John Dos Passos, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were big ones for me. I hoped that their prose might rub off on me, that I could learn how to do this visually.
To address this issue, you’ve hired models, actors and spaces to recreate the habits and tastes of comfortable, white, upper-middle-class families. Why did you stage it all instead of just doing documentary photography with real people?
I’ve never wanted to point fingers at individuals. I want to examine the manners, gestures, and behaviours that perpetuate inequality. With such a concerted effort to be as modest or inoffensive as possible, a certain segment of white America seems very invested in covering its tracks. The challenge of representing this self-erasing subject fascinates me, so I’ve turned to staging to make them visible, borrowing from the model of a commercial photo shoot – sourcing actors, clothing, props, locations.
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These generic characters that your actors and models recreated are at times reminiscent of commercial or advertising tropes. Do you think that advertising is one of the elements perpetuating these privileges?
I don’t.
How’s the process of making the photo book with Loose Joints been like? What lessons have you learned through making a book?
Anytime I put the images in a new context, be that a show or a book, they show another facet of themselves to me. I learned a great deal about my work from seeing it through Lewis’ and Sarah’s (the publishers) eyes.
Despite focusing specifically on white American wealth, would you say your work also speaks about a universal problem?
Absolutely. 0.7% of the world’s population controls 41% of its assets. (Brooke Harrington, Capital without Borders, Harvard University Press, 2017, p. 11.).
The book Living Trust, by Buck Ellison and published by Loose Joints, is available on the publisher’s website.
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