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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Debunking negative stereotypes of impoverished people through photography

Barnes explains that one of the goals of the North Carolina Fund was to debunk the negative stereotypes many tax-payers had about welfare. With his photography of impoverished people in North Carolina, Barnes hoped to demonstrate that poor people were hard-working and proud. By photographing these people in their everyday settings and in activities of self-improvement, Barnes hoped to offer poignant evidence that contradicted gross misconceptions of poor people as lazy or degenerate.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH GRITTER:
You were saying in the last interview that you did similar tactics with your own program in terms of giving them to people in communities to show that it wasn't a subversive program what you were doing. You were doing tutoring and health programs and—.
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Exactly.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
So forth. Who were you worried about? Who were you fighting against? Who would think that it would be a subversive program?
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Well, there are people in our society—maybe more so then than now, though I'm not sure of that—who pride themselves on being self-made people. Well, I'll give you an example in the Congress, Phil Gramm. Phil Gramm, as I understand it, his mother was a welfare mother. He went to college on the G-I bill but today he is continually making speeches saying that Social Security is a handout and saying that we shouldn't be giving that kind of—. "Government money shouldn't be used to help anybody because this is a land of opportunity and you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and the government shouldn't be in the business of subsidizing anything or anybody until they get on their feet." He's the worst kind of Republican there is. There were a lot of people like that in North Carolina and everywhere at the time, hard-working people for the most part. They resent every penny of taxes they pay. They thought that poor people are poor because they're too lazy to work. Period. "And yet they go and get those Food Stamps and they buy beer with them." Well, anybody's who's informed knows that they won't sell you beer for Food Stamps. But there are all these myths. There was a song about the welfare Cadillac. I don't know whether you ever heard it. It was about a mother who drove a big white Cadillac up to get her Food Stamps. Welfare is such a horribly pejorative word that folks in the social services business stopped using the word "welfare." You very seldom see it in a government publication anymore. That name of that word. And, so, what these detractors would do—. These people were members of boards of county commissioners. They were local businesspeople. They thought people were poor because they—. [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A] [TAPE 1, SIDE B] [START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Show that these poor people are people who will participate in job training if we offer it to them. Teenagers who will work there buns off laying water lines and cleaning windows at schools in the summer time if they're offered a job through Neighborhood Youth Corps. That these little children will have a better start in school if they're getting tutoring and Head Start programs and can get some education boost in the summer time. If we could show photographs of those things happening, then this would debunk the myth that these people aren't interested in bettering themselves. I don't know whether you've ever seen the North Carolina Fund logo. It's an outline of the state and what it says on the state is "opportunity." We were trying to make the point that everything we did, that my department did—. We were trying to make the point that what we were offering people was opportunities. If they choose not to take the opportunities, then that's their business. But we were convinced, and I think we were right, that ninety percent of the people who were quote poor people would jump at a chance for an opportunity to better themselves: to live in a nicer place, to have a nicer job or a job at all, to have their children learning. So, the best way to do that, I was convinced, was through photographs. To show these activities. To show a doctor in Winston-Salem examining a little child—looking in the little child's ear or looking down the little child's throat. The North Carolina Volunteers showing people how to use government surplus commodities. I didn't know any better way to do it than with photographs and with movies and images.