“But I can’t let go of the desire, the impulse, to want to believe in a society where things really will get better.” (Goldberg)

Photographers often aim to help change the world by telling the stories of others, as in Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor where his photographic portraits make visible the experiences of people at both end of the wealth spectrum. The images, first published in 1985, then reissued almost three decades later at cost of $90 a book, include handwritten text added by the subjects themselves. Collaborators of the project these people are given a voice through photography, but a voice that Goldberg claims has made little difference to the world with a growing wealth divide, however this has not destroyed his optimism.  “”I believed, I really believed, that once people saw what was happening, then we, as a society, would fix it. I am less naïve now, or at least I hope I am. But I can’t let go of the desire, the impulse, to want to believe in a society where things really will get better.” (Goldberg in Finkelstein, 2014)

Goldberg’s work has been described as both engrossing and disturbing by the agency Magnum as the text conveys intimate and personal thoughts about relationships, money, private lives. Without the additions of heartfelt experiences, these images would not have been as powerful and would doubtful have received the level of attention they have over the last thirty years. “When tackling a topic as loaded as poverty, questions of ownership and representation abound. But in offering the subjects the chance to review their image and add a dimension of their own to the work, Goldberg gives them a stake in the narrative. Here, the text and images work as cumulative data […] historical testaments to lives as much as they are photographs.” (Magnumphotos.com)

Goldberg’s approach in involving others is one echoed by Gillian Wearing in her project Signs that Say What You Want Them To Say and Not Signs that Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say (1991-1992).  Wearing has written that this collaboration ‘interrupts the logic of photo-documentary and snapshot photography by the subjects’ clear collusion and engineering of their own representation.’ (Wearing 1997 in Tate.org.uk)

The marginalised other frequently becomes a subject for art, and creators of such images surely need to maintain optimism as Goldberg does.  Motivated by change, this approach may be described as political and can be positive, however, each photograph with its small amount of text is a tiny part of a much larger picture, and change can take a very, very long time.


‘I’m desperate’ 1992-3 Gillian Wearing OBE born 1963 Purchased 2000 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P78348 


Goldberg (1983)  USA. San Francisco, California. 1983. “My face shows the intensity of a pained woman. I’ve been mugged and beaten. I didn’t ask for this mess. This makes me look like a bum – I am not. I am fantastic Dorothy, a popular personality. The nicest person in the hotel.”


Goldberg, J. in Finkelstein, S. (2014)   Looking at ‘Rich and Poor,’ 37 Years Later, Time.com, August 22 2014 Available at: http://time.com/money/3055901/jim-goldberg-rich-poor-income-inequality (Accessed 2 August 2019)

Magnum Photos (2018). Society: Rich and Poor. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/arts-culture/society-arts-culture/jim-goldberg-rich-and-poor/ (Accessed 2 August 2019)

Wearing, G. (1997) in Tate.org. ‘I’m Desperate’. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/wearing-im-desperate-p78348 (Accessed 2 August 2019)

Goldberg image available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/newsroom/society/jim-goldberg-rich-and-poor/