I don’t remember when or how I ended up subscribing to the YouTube channel Soft White Underbelly, in which a guy named Mark Laita brings people into his studio, records interviews, takes a stunning portrait photo of the interview subject, and then pays them for their time. He’s interviewed gangsters, pimps, prostitutes, homeless men and women, alcoholics, meth and fentanyl addicts. It’s fascinating, but really depressing. It seems like none of his interview subjects have been spared of some sort of violent childhood, mental illness, addiction…
Today while taking a break from editing the novel I looked at my YouTube subscription feed and watched a new video from Soft White Underbelly where the subject is a learning-disabled woman named Rita, HIV positive, who’s homeless and who alludes in somewhat coded language to the fact that she occasionally sells her body (her “sugarbone”) for drugs or clothes or food, the frequency with which she’s raped and robbed.
It was intense.
A short while after that I went back to see it again and saw that Soft White Underbelly had uploaded a new video in just those couple of hours, this one an interview with a prostitute named Coco, and so I went to the channel’s page and saw that, in the three or four days since I was last there, several videos had been uploaded. The catalogue of interviews with all of these scarred, struggling, suffering people goes on and on and on, and while each video is rich with its own insights into life itself, into love and pain and heartbreak and desperation and everything else, there’s also something existentially punishing about how prolific the channel is. The endless supply of people with broken lives just on Skid Row alone.
You don’t even have to watch the videos to get a sense of how unrelenting life can be. Just go through two or three, and then scroll down to see how many there are. There’s an undeniable beauty to the whole project but it’s one of those unrelentingly powerful works of art that almost refuses to be consumed in more than a few samples at a time.