Inequality is a complicated term. It can be applied to so many factors, for one thing. There’s income inequality, asset inequality, gender inequality, social, class, political … you name it, someone, somewhere likely feels (and is) hard done by. And, for all the focus that Thomas Piketty has gained for his analysis of a new, ever-diverging global class of the superrich, inequality is still personal. As such, we asked an international group of artists, designers, photographers and activists to provide one image that encapsulates what inequality means to them — and to explain their selection. See them all below.
Ryan Lobo, photographer, India
“Here is a photograph I made of a little boy who lives in a slum outside one of India’s most successful IT companies, the Infosys building in Bangalore.
India has very unequal patterns of development, and though the economy has benefited, most of India’s 1.28 billion people remain deeply disadvantaged.
I would like to see more fairness with regard to opportunities to increase the quality of existence on this planet for all beings, animal, plant and human. In a world with finite resources, even if the world economy improved, a world population growing over seven billion would be disastrous for the planet if everyone were equal with regards to consumption.
More than equality, we need transcendence and compassion, discipline and possibly faith in something larger than the self and its ambitions. I have always liked this quote from the King of Bhutan: ‘Gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.'”
Monika Bulaj, artist, Italy
“‘Did you sleep well?’ Rebecca asks me, while crawling like a cat out of her hut and holding the corner of her skirt in her teeth. Her husband lifts her like a doll, sets her on the bike-wheelchair, carefully arranging the immaculate laces of her dress, cut in a white flower pattern. ‘Are your parents, your siblings, your children sleeping well?’ she asks. This is the Dinkas’ way of saying ‘Good morning.’ To sleep means to be healthy, to be alive. People here say that the evil was born by the night, as well as diseases. Even leprosy was born by the darkness, not by malnutrition. Rebecca is leprous.
At first I was afraid to give her my hand, and a lump of shame rose in my throat. Then I learned to take these arms without fingers in my hands, arms without feeling and form, able to work in spite of all the troubles. If she were not sick, Rebecca would be a female slender copy of the Riace bronzes, would be as regal as almost all healthy women are here. For her, every guy Dinka would be willing to shell out a dowry of 200 cows. She was the most beautiful in the village, her singing was dreaming men, her dance was the rain falling. Then, at the first symptoms of the disease, Rebecca fled into the woods, and when she came out, with her body to shreds, it was too late. In this paradise, three out of four people are sick. War, displacement, starvation don’t come alone, but always bring the worst.”
— An extract from Monika Bulaj’s project Rebecca and the Rain.
Christine Sun Kim, artist, United States/Germany
“For me, this photo contains two different kind of inequalities, Firstly, it was taken in early 2013, right before I had to move out of my apartment in New York City because of the high rent. I guess that’s economic inequality! Secondly, I like what the picture actually shows. My friend and I had set up our laptops so we could efficiently communicate in written English. I am deaf and I speak in American sign language (ASL). For some reason, this photo reminds me that ASL is still not federally recognized yet — and it’s 2014! There’s definitely a major language inequality there.”
Lisa Kristine, photographer, United States
“In my experience as a humanitarian photographer working on the front lines of modern-day slavery, inequality arises from the mistaken belief that we are separate from one another. The truth is that tragedy or poverty can happen to any one of us; we are in fact not separate from the problem. Our responsibility is to our human family — and ensuring that every human being is treated with the dignity they deserve.”
Ziyah Gafic, storyteller, Bosnia and Herzegovina
“These are the personal belongings of children killed during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992 until 1995. Estimates say that between 650 and 1,600 children were killed; some of them died from the shelling, others were shot by snipers. The exact number of children who were killed is still unknown, as some parents are impossible to reach and it’s difficult to verify the numbers.”
Will Potter, investigative journalist, United States
“Right now, multiple countries are considering new laws that make it illegal to photograph or videotape animal cruelty on factory farms. These so-called ‘ag-gag’ laws are meant to stop animal welfare advocates and whistleblowers from exposing what happens every day behind closed doors. In some cases, those who uncover animal cruelty would face harsher penalties than the people actually committing the violence. This type of inequality — singling people out for harsher treatment under the law because of their beliefs, in order to protect business interests — has no place in a democracy. Tilting the scales in favor of big business, and against consumers, puts us all at risk.” Photograph: Jo-Anne McArthur.
Giles Duley, photographer, London
“People have asked me if I ever cry taking photographs. I always say no; the camera acts as a kind of shield and it’s only when I’m back home, editing, that the tears flow. With Ataqullah, though, it was different. I met him at the ICRC limb-fitting centre in Kabul. Ataqullah was 7 years old when he stepped on a landmine whilst walking to school. He lost an arm and a leg, but never his consciousness. It took nearly ten hours before they got him to the emergency hospital in Kabul, where his life was saved.
Looking through my lens, all I could see was a bewildered boy with a plastic leg and a plastic arm that hung uselessly by his side. It all looked so wrong and he was so lost. I kept thinking of all I went through when I lost my legs and arm, the pain both physical and emotional that I am still in, and all I could think was, ‘why should a 7-year-old boy have to go through all I went through simply because he was walking to school?’
Worse, I knew he would never have the opportunities I’ve had. He’d been injured just a few miles from where I was and just a few months later; yet our treatment and rehabilitation would be a million miles apart. Here I was, back at work thanks to the latest prosthesis and medical support, whilst Ataqullah was struggling to even be mobile. Our injuries were almost identical, yet our lives would be so different.
I could take no more photographs that day, as tears blurred my sight.”
Aaron Huey, photographer, United States
“‘Inequality’ is perhaps the defining word of our time.
Never has there been a greater gap between rich and poor and it seems to be growing at an impossible and unsustainable rate (begging for a revolution). The system is rigged, and the ones with the power have made sure that they cannot lose. They do this through debt slavery, land grabs and governmental policies that place corporations above communities.
I think often of the inequality that comes when the corporate state is in opposition to the health and welfare of the people. I think about it often in relationship to how our resources are extracted, and how that process negatively affects, in the short term, largely indigenous communities (but will ultimately affect us all). Though we need many of these resources to survive as a nation, the poisonous byproducts of these operations — uranium mines, coal plants, fracking operations and tar-sand extractions, to name just a few — all seem to trickle down into the communities that have the least power. They pay for our wealth with their health, with the diseases they contract from the poisons they breath and drink. Many will pay with their death.
That is inequality.”
Bahia Shehab, artist, Egypt
“The image was shot in Cairo in May 2012. It was before the first round of presidential elections after the revolution and I had sprayed ‘No to a New Pharaoh’ on Mohamad Mahmoud Street off Tahrir Square. I found this young man sleeping near the wall where I sprayed the night before.
Homeless people are present even in the most advanced and cosmopolitan of cities. It is a human condition that people from all around the world can understand and fear. We move around our cities detached from its weakest and most vulnerable beings because we are too busy providing a shelter for ourselves. Still, no one should sleep on the street. It is the responsibility of governments and communities to make sure that never happens.”
Saeed Taji Farouky, filmmaker, photographer, Palestine/UK
“I see inequality as the abuse of power. It’s the failure of a society to value its citizens equally, and the success of institutions (governments, corporations, etc.) in keeping some people oppressed and exploited. I don’t see equality as equal opportunity; that’s not enough.
We can have an academic conversation about how everyone in a society would have the same opportunity to succeed and be safe if only they applied themselves fully. In practice this isn’t true, because the oppressed, the weak and the less powerful have less access to resources and opportunities. In fact rampant capitalism ensures and entrenches that.
Inequality is one of the roots of injustice, and one of the biggest contributing factors to crime and violence (including war). It’s the result of unchecked privilege and of the inability to empathize. It’s the ritual humiliation of the less powerful for the benefit of the more powerful. It’s depressing and tragic, and the worst part is it’s completely unnecessary and totally avoidable, even in a capitalist economy. So, when I see inequality, I see a society that has chosen to keep some of its members subjugated, even though all evidence and observation says that it’s destructive and completely preventable.” The image above shows Palestinian workers lining up to be allowed through the largest checkpoint in Bethlehem, which crosses Israel’s separation wall.
Negin Farsad, comedian/writer/filmmaker, United States
“My latest movie, 3rd Street Blackout, deals with income inequality. It’s a comedy set in the blackout that resulted form Hurricane Sandy — a time when people had to put down their screens and actually interact with their neighbors. East Third Street in New York City is one of those peculiar blocks, projects on one side and million-dollar co-ops on the other. It’s a really safe mixed-income block, but it doesn’t mean the neighbors actually know each other. Basically, it’s a social-atomization-inequality cluster bomb on the same block! How can we bridge the divide when even crossing the street proves such a hurdle?” 3rd Street Blackout, directed by Negin Farsad and Jeremy Redleaf and produced by Andrew Mendelson, is in pre-production.
Esra’a Al Shafei, civil rights activist, Bahrain
“This illustration unveils the condition of migrant workers across the Gulf due to unequal labor and rights protections. Different labor protections, different wages and unequal access to redress marginalize migrant workers from society. For me this is the epitome of inequality.”