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  Field Notes From
ZipUSA: 19886

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ZipUSA: 19886 On AssignmentArrows

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From Photographer

David McLain

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photograph by David McLean


ZipUSA: 19886 On Assignment Photographer ZipUSA: 19886 On Assignment Photographer
ZipUSA: 19886

Field Notes From Photographer
David McLain

Best Worst Quirkiest
     This was a really hard story because we had to illustrate the abstract concept of credit cards and debt. But we knew the debtors weren't totally abstract. So Mary McPeak, the author, found this cool, and incredibly helpful, woman named Mary Rammell who is in charge of a debt counseling service. We started talking and just hit it off right away. We never could have done this story without her help because she put us in touch with all these different debtors. She got into our story and bent over backwards trying to help us.

     Mary Rammell gave us tens of thousands of cut-up credit cards in 55-gallon (240-liter) water jugs, and my assistant and I brought them back to my hotel room. We set up this makeshift studio with crazy lighting, studio cameras, Polaroid film, and all these tiny mirrors and other things used to reflect light. We also had assembled some credit cards on the floor, using different pieces. And we had thousands of envelopes with fake addresses on them.
     Well, while we were gone the cleaning lady came in and thought we were a credit card smuggling ring. So when we got back and tried my room key, it didn't work. We told the people at the reception desk, and they picked up the phone and said, "The guests from room 212 are here." About a second later, three security guards surrounded us and called the Wilmington police. A detective came, and he wouldn't let us go anywhere. Our room did look sketchy, but I just told the detective the truth, and he was smart enough to realize we weren't lying.

     I've never had a credit-card balance in my life, and I never will unless something horrible happens. I always assumed that that was the way most people were, but the average household in America has about $8,000 in credit-card debt.
     It was interesting that a lot of the people I met hadn't spent their money on all these great things. They'd just spend their money on junk. For example, I photographed one guy who had $20,000 in debt. He said he spent his money on things like eating at restaurants, traveling, and customizing his pickup truck. But the only thing he had to show for it was a blue velour couch.


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