These Photos Show The Beautiful, Disturbing World Of The 1%

These images chart the lifestyle of the wealthiest among us–and what that inequality is doing to the rest of the world.

In 1955, the Museum of Modern Art gathered 503 photographs of everyday life–eating, working, falling in love–from around the world, aimed at demonstrating the “essential oneness of mankind.” A new book does the opposite: These photos show that we’re not all in it together. At a time when the poorest half of the global population owns less than 1% of total wealth, and the richest 10% own 86%, it tells the story of inequality.


On opposite pages in the book, called 1%: Privilege in a Time of Global Inequality, extreme wealth is shown next to the destruction it creates, though the connection isn’t always clear at first glance. A road covered in billowing dust follows an opera house.

The Meeting Table of the Board of Directors of Banco Santander, from The Table of Power 2. 2010Jacqueline Hassink

“You see this opulent opera house in a casino in Monaco, which is like a rich people heaven–it feels so solid and gorgeous and timeless and permanent,” says Myles Little, the New York City-based photo editor who curated the collection. “And the very next image is of this sort of golden evaporation. Scarily enough, that is our experience of wealth in America in the past several years since the financial collapse. Tremendous opulence that vanishes.”

The dusty road also represents the environmental cost of consumption. “It’s taken in a logging road in Africa, and this manufacturing process coats the entire landscape in this sort of golden haze and dust everywhere,” Little says.

In another spread, a race boat in Abu Dhabi is next to a rubber dinghy filled with refugees headed to Greece. While most pictures show the world of the 1% (like a private champagne party after a balloon ride in Kenya), others show people hoping to reach that world–like a crowd at a southern church that preaches that Jesus wants us all to be rich.

New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana II, 2005Mitch Epstein. © Black River Productions, Ltd. Courtesy of Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York

Taken by some of the world’s best contemporary photographers, each image is the kind of art that wouldn’t be out of place on a rich collector’s wall. It’s a way to point out privilege using the language of privilege. But the beauty and subtlety of the photos is also meant to draw in people who might not otherwise engage in a conversation about inequality.

“Instead of loud, aggressive imagery, you’ll see a lot of more contemplative, quieter images here, maybe shot with a little bit of distance between the photographer and the subject,” says Little. “Which I think helps in a certain way, in that it doesn’t turn people off. If you make a book of aggressive caricature, I think you’ve automatically lost a sizable part of your potential audience. But I think if you are a little more calm and thoughtful about a very explosive topic, you might have a little more success in communicating and letting people see your side of the issue.”

Tong, 29, poses for her wedding pictures at Princess Studio, a wedding photo studio in Shanghai, China. 2013Guillaume Herbaut—INSTITUTE

Little first released the images in a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2015, and the collection is also traveling around the world. Through photography, he’s hoping to expand the conversation about inequality.

“It’s such a democratic art form,” he says. “Not only in making it–we’re all able to make it nowadays–but also in consuming it. I brought this show to the Pingyao Festival in China, and showed it to many, many people who didn’t speak much English at all. And just by looking at people’s faces in the gallery, I think it made an impact.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."