Historians of the Depression frequently point out that at first one couldn't necessarily see it, so it was difficult to get leaders to act. The mortgage crisis poses a similar problem of representation. How do you visualize predatory lending? defaults on adjustable rate mortgages? foreclosure? Put another way, what exactly do we see when we look for the mortgage crisis?
The visual narrative of the mortgage crisis tends to be about places rather than people. While you will see a few images of people (typically, women) who have lost their homes, for the most part you get lots of images like these. "For sale" signs speak not of opportunity (what a cute house! what a great neighborhood!) but of threat. Shot from ground level at an unnatural angle, they are yellow, the color of warning, where "must see inside" is not an invitation but a plea, and "auction coming soon" is the sad and perhaps predictable end to an unknown story. And it's not just the signs, it's the houses those signs are in front of. Nice houses with freshly painted shutters and front porches. New houses in "good" neighborhoods. But everything is visually distorted. The houses loom over us, practically shouting out the question, if everything is so nice, why isn't anything moving?
In contrast to these unpopulated images of stasis, another image seems to be emerging, that of the repo bus:
Whether you call it preying on others' misfortunes or think of it as good business for hard times, either way it's repo-tourism. The smiling, casually-clad tourists on the buses cruise around town, looking for bargains and listening as the real estate agent-cum-tour guide chats them up, makes jokes, and turns grim statistics into the dream of big returns. This is where the movement is and this is where the people are.
(Top, left to right: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters; Kimberly Wright/Reuters. Bottom, left to right: therealestatebloggers.com; Jim Zarolli, NPR)