The Salt of the Earth
An op-ed by Jesse Dritz
Since 1973, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies has taught students the theory and practice of documentary non-fiction. Ever since I participated in the Portland High School Photography Club, I’ve admired Salt and considered it an ideal postgraduate program to which I might one day apply. I studied photography at Colby College and completed an immersive internship at Aperture Foundation in New York City following graduation. Drawn to documentary photography, I grew increasingly attached to the idea of attending Salt.
But I was burned by the program. It’s very frustrating that as a low-income student in Maine, it didn’t make sense for me to attend Salt. And the problem extends beyond my personal experience. The admissions and financial practices of Maine College of Art (MECA), which absorbed Salt three years ago, conflict with the documentary program’s focus and ethics.
To appreciate why Salt matters, visit the Salt Story Archive (saltstoryarchive.com). This free online resource offers a Maine people’s history of the past five decades, full of fascinating accounts of the everyday lives of Mainers who work on the land, on the water, and in the state’s traditional industries. It includes the stories of people who’ve immigrated to Maine and are trying to adapt to a new environment, of people struggling with health problems or struggling to raise children here.
That said, Salt students’ work does skew a bit toward idiosyncratic subjects, like Olivia Norrmén-Smith’s 2017 documentary short about Dave Copp and his antique “bottle shop” in Friendship. “I used to be into the full ones, but now I kinda like lean towards the empty ones,” Copp said in the video. “I guess everybody today is caught up in the wheel of chasing the almighty buck,” he added. “But life is simple. I don’t make any money at this. It’s more fun. It’s my hobby.” Daniel Rosinsky-Larrson’s 2015 radio piece documents the New England tradition of small towns giving their eldest resident an honorary cane. “It’s not that you did a lot, it’s not that you’re famous, it’s just that you’re old,” said Noella Hemond of Minot, who received such a cane in 2014. The practice was begun in 1909 by Boston Post publisher Edwin Grozier, who once said, “Age is a subject of universal interest. Whether in the city or the country, a man who has managed to cheat death is always an interesting figure,” Rosinsky-Larrson reported.
Salt itself has beat the reaper numerous times. As noted on the Archive website, the program has relocated five times since it was founded and has undergone many other structural changes over the decades. Now incorporated as a graduate program within MECA, Salt seems relatively stable these days.
It’s also relatively expensive. The 15-week program costs $10,650, plus another $240 in fees. Room and board are not included in that cost, but MECA offers Salt students the opportunity to live in a residence hall for the semester for about $5,000. The price of Salt seems comparable to the tuition charged by other private, graduate-level arts and MFA programs. However, also like those programs, Salt does not offer much financial aid.
The Salt website states, vaguely, that “Salt Graduate Certificate students are eligible for federal financial aid.” With that in mind, I applied early for Salt’s spring 2019 program. I figured that given my indisputable financial need, at least a small portion of the cost would be covered. When I finally received my financial aid package, I was shocked — and I have no shame using this cliché, as the news truly did take my breath away — that MECA was willing to offer me $17,470 in unsubsidized federal loans. Again, for four months of study.
Most of you already know that private higher education is a game that very much favors the rich. In general, master’s degree programs don’t provide much financial aid, but PhD programs reliably do. The catch-22, of course, is that it’s far easier to get accepted into a PhD program if you already have a master’s degree.
Maine College of Art shouldn’t be singled out for criticism for this reason alone — they’re just participating in the same system in which most private colleges operate. However, since they’ve absorbed Salt, I think this issue has become more ethically fraught.
It was pretty easy for me to dismiss the idea of attending Salt after receiving MECA’s financial aid package. Seventeen thousand dollars is about equal to the amount of debt I’d accrued after attending an expensive liberal arts college for four years. I’d be damned if I’d bury myself that much deeper in debt for a certificate from a four-month program. Still, I was heartbroken. I’d fallen in love with the Salt Story Archive and with the idea of adding a story of my own. I also felt like I had a right to participate in Salt. I know it’s naïve, but I thought my status as a Mainer of limited means would warrant some extra effort by MECA to include people like me in the program.
There is a fellowship program for Salt students who come from what MECA calls “underrepresented communities” (that term is left undefined). According to the college, this fellowship grants one full scholarship or two partial scholarships to Salt students every term. Enrollment in the program has ranged between 13 and 19 students over the past four semesters, according to MECA, and the goal for the spring 2019 term was 20 students.
This lack of financial aid is problematic in more ways than one. Salt’s mission has always been to document the lives of ordinary Mainers, most of whom are clinging to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Back when Salt published a monthly magazine of student work, its cover proudly and provocatively declared it “The Magazine About the Really Important People of Maine.”
What’s more, Salt teaches both the technical and the ethical practices of documentary work. Among the latter is surely the admonition not to exploit one’s subjects for professional gain. But I wonder about the ethics of a program in which, I can only deduce, most participants are wealthy out-of-staters collecting the stories of poor Mainers. (Only about a third of all MECA students are from Maine.) It seems that part of the Salt experience is paying MECA to legitimize a practice that otherwise would be viewed as exploitative.
Is it naïve to believe Salt has a special obligation to accommodate students from the population it documents? Who, after all, is better positioned to tell the stories of working-class Mainers with insight and empathy than working-class Mainers themselves?
Documentary work doesn’t have to be about social change, but to my mind, the most important documentaries are rooted in a mission to improve society in some way. It wouldn’t seem out of place to come across a Salt story that documents economic inequality and brings attention to the crisis of young people struggling under the burden of heavy student debt. But that would be an ironic project, to say the least, given that MECA is encouraging students to take on a potentially crippling amount of debt to study in a field where post-graduate financial security is far from assured.
Last November, MECA received a $3 million gift from the Lunder Foundation, a charitable organization established by former Dexter Shoe Co. president Peter Lunder and his wife, Paula Lunder. MECA hopes to match (that is, double) the Lunder money with other donations, raising a total of $5 million for student financial aid and $1 million for “ongoing operations,” including preparations for a “strategic planning process,” according to a press release.
None of that $5 million will be used to increase financial aid for Salt students, according to MECA spokesperson Sue McGovern. Instead, the money will be used to help undergraduates and graduate students enrolled in other MECA programs.
An editorial published last October in the Bangor Daily News highlighted the growing problem of student debt among graduate students, stating that low-income students “shouldn’t have to choose between taking on debt they can’t repay and not getting a degree.” That’s the choice MECA offered me when I applied to Salt. Given Salt’s mission and the subjects it covers, it is essential that MECA do more to help low-income Mainers participate in the program by increasing financial aid. To do otherwise is to run the risk of being seen as truly unethical and classist.