By Missy Hunter
Mark Laita‘s Soft White Underbelly video series on YouTube is work you aren’t used to seeing from him. For him it is personal, “it’s a statement about the wealth gap in our country by chronicling the fringe of society.”
Mark started this video project almost ten years ago with a handful of followers. As time passed, his channel grew to 2K followers. Then two videos, one, an interview with a young prostitute named Kelly, and another, a discussion with a crystal meth addict named Lin, each struck a chord with people, and the videos went viral. The Soft White Underbelly channel grew from 2K followers to 500K followers in the span of a couple of weeks. With the staggering growth came much support and Mark decided to start a GoFundMe account for Kelly’s education. This caught the attention of the public and The Washington Post did a story on it as well.
Why Soft White Underbelly? Winston Churchill used the phrase “soft underbelly,” referring to Italy and the Axis of Europe during WWII. The title is a nod to Churchill, Mark’s understanding of vulnerability, and how it described for him what he started to see on the streets from his photography studio in Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
To honestly know who Mark is, one would need to see his work from when he was a 14-year-old in Chicago, where he started shooting portraits of homeless people whose stories he found intriguing. Although he is known for his still life and product photography, Mark’s fascination with communicating people’s stories through imagery is one that continues to capture his interest today.
What began as a hobby as a teen, eventually became a collection called Lower 48, named for the multiple states he visited chronicling people’s stories. Lower 48, gathered over several years between commercial projects, are straight-forward portraits of individuals and couples throughout the U.S. Mark wanted to show the differences in classes and cultures through parallel portraitures. Lower 48 became a book called Created Equal, published in 2009.
“I believe listening, understanding, accepting, and deciding to do something about it, (like creating these videos), might make a difference.”Mark Laita
Much of Mark’s work delivers honesty by using lighting, camera angles, or editing – a means of accentuating or dramatizing what he sees in a subject. The conversations Mark was having with the people he met were raw and honest and Mark knew that the best way to share them authentically would be to start shooting video. Being able to deliver what they had to say honestly was important to him.
Mark interviewed over 1,200 people, with a fraction of those appearing on his YouTube channel. The heartbreaking stories are of prostitutes, porn actors, those fighting addictions, homelessness, and a life of crime.
“This project is like a crash course in empathy.” Mark finds that people come in willingly, waiting to tell their stories. He has heard from his interviewees that the process is cathartic, a way to unload their baggage. The conversations, they report, are a means to feeling less alone. While Mark is not a professional, he has heard it has helped some to look towards another way of life, to stop using, and for that, he is grateful.
What is the future of this project? Mark has a longterm goal. He isn’t looking to make immediate societal fixes, as that is not in his purview. He hopes to help future generations to take notice and make changes so that there isn’t such a vast separation between the haves and have-nots. Mark reports while it is super draining, he intends to, with the proper funds, grow the project to be able to travel to other locales, as L.A. is not the only place in the U.S. that has a population in dire straits.
We wish him well on his journey of #revealinghonesty and #bringinghope.
With the growth of the Soft White Underbelly YouTube channel, unsavory characters have surfaced, creating fake go-fund-me accounts supposedly in the name of others whom Mark has profiled – people have gone so far as to pose as Mark in opening up the accounts. There have been unintended consequences in having his channel on YouTube. To keep only those interested in furthering this project and the cause, Mark recently opened a Patreon account, a paid platform, to house the videos.
The Soft White Underbelly project has struck a nerve with the public and brought attention to a growing problem of those living with many unhealthy challenges in life. Check out the Soft White Underbelly story as reported in The Washington Post.
Follow Mark on Instagram for more imagery and videos that are simple, honest and pure.