Mark Laita, We Are Not Your Soft White Underbelly | Curiosity Shots (2023)

Mark Laita: Is This Exploitation Or Stark Reality Through The Guise Of A Societal Need For True Awareness?

The grey area we humans tend to reside in can be different shades depending on where one stands. Tinted lens chiseled from privilege sit upon gold frames, attempting to acknowledge the divide between class and race by creating a type of one-way mirror built from exploitation and potential redemption.

The lack of historical respect or consideration of the forces behind circumstance and the brevity of immersion within the subject’s world said privilege can consent to its user keeps the line between exploitation and representation as brittle as the American psyche. These days, the purveyors of such an area usually trend between journalists, artists, and activists — supposedly stripped of implicit bias while entering the domain of their subjects to display the unvarnished truth. That truth is then up to the storyteller to present, not only in a way in which lends the most credence to the subject but paints the entire picture for the audience to interpret for themselves.

As an artist myself, the job of interpretation is precious, akin to the first taste of a new dish you’ve never tried because you knew not of its existence. Yet a lens honed by the hands of time in shoes that have always fit tends to miss the mark, unbeknownst or not by the storyteller. I’ve never been as conflicted and confused after watching Mark Laita’s interview series called, “Soft White Underbelly.”

Some nights I have a hard time sleeping when I don’t take melatonin, so I surf the viral video landscape satiating my need to be entertained to the point of boredom turned slumber. I almost didn’t click on the video entitled: “Very Sad: Crack Addicted Prostitute Living On The Streets of LA Looks Completely Different After a Year”. I usually wouldn’t, especially since the thumbnail featured two yearbook-style photos of a Black woman named Amanda in varying stages of her addiction. I, for one, am full up on the depiction of Black pain, especially the societal caused agony of Black women.

Let this now be the grand reveal of my own implicit bias I haven’t the inclination to ever shed after years of desensitization of me and my own people’s suffering. But something made me click further. Maybe it was the simple logo thumbnailed in the top left corner, adjacent to the YouTube embedded title “Crack Addicted Prostitute-Amanda (spring 2020).” Most likely it was my initial reaction of disbelief, shifting in light speed toward the question of “Who thought this was a good idea? and whether or not I should watch the video. I pressed play and began the latest chapter of Amanda framed within the lens of Mark Laita’s eye.

Most of Mark Laita’s Underbelly work starts with an intro: monologues from the subject’s life or samples from pop culture set as the backdrop to either a still or video. Amanda’s interview starts with shaky cam-footage of her in the middle of a crack high, perched on seating we can’t see, in front of a backdrop that looks like something you’d see out of a high school yearbook. The format is pretty similar throughout all of Mark’s videos. He asks his subject questions in talk show fashion, usually starting simple, then working his way up to open-ended inquires that send the interviewees into introspective, sometimes incoherent dialogues about life or their place in it. Amanda’s particular video, and various otherslike it, were the last of a trilogy of videos he’d done over the past year.

Stuck between a crack-induced comatose state and self-awareness still fighting to be heard, she tried to explain her circumstance; her story, but the pieces were as lost as the sun is bright during the midday.She, as many of his subjects do, rambles along a line of thought scrambled from years of systemic neglect and oppression. Bad choices be damned if the opportunity to do something more, something better, were at least given to any of the interviewees. At the end of every visual scene, there were links to assist, shelters to donate to, mutual aid funds that could directly impact the subjects of Laita’s work on display for the audience to support.

Yet there was no true call to action, no plea from anyone but the subject of Laita’s work — the person who finally had someone listening to a life’s story that most people on this earth wouldn’t care to learn nor experience. That’s where I arrive at the dilemma; the grey area similar to the Schrödinger’s Cat, where optimists and people of privilege tend to live, as their position in this caste system can afford them that luxury.

Pinned at the top of Soft White Underbelly’s channel is an intro video featuring Mark Laita’s explanation of what he’s doing and his version of why. He explains that after working for an advertising agency as a photographer, “helping wealthy corporations even wealthier,”the uncomfortable truth that ad work would be the legacy left behind when no longer on this earth sunk in. I think a majority of us can relate to his wanting to do something that truly mattered in the world, working to better the lives of those less fortunate because dismantling the system few benefit from is a cause worth working for. In this case, there’s something of a Sinclair’s Concrete Jungle effect. Storytelling mixed with privilege-fed ignorance that could either be masquerading under the guise of awareness through artistry or the commodification of oppressed laden experiences that would otherwise be ignored. Interestingly enough, the explanation was only recorded and published two months ago almost three years after his first upload, and about nine months from when Laita started to upload his interviews more frequently.

His white savior-esque reasoning for creating Soft White Underbelly stemming from “maybe deciding to do something differently” about what he calls the “broken” parts of society by crafting interviews of the most marginalized of citizens in their most vulnerable state is understandable yet disgusting. Still, one has to recognize that there are infinite sides to this perspective which is why his work creates such a conflict within the confines of what we may think is redeemable or not, juxtaposed between what your newfound awareness does for the people of Laita’s project or your conscience.

From placing the burden upon the individual who happens to stumble across Laita’s work, making it to the end of a video to access donation information to the use of marginalized people’s pain as a way to ensure the survival of two-parent households and “good role models,” his explanation” video mirrors the same kind of erasure of the kind of system we are borne unto and what affect it has upon us.

His use of titles that box subjects beneath stereotypical motifs and code words that automatically elicit implicit bias leave no room for any form of self-definition; no matter how the interviewee persuades the audience. Black and white mug shot-like portraits; of men, women, and trans folk; stuck in a moment of cathartic release or despair are reduced to just that, humanized only through a lens that lacks the space for duality for whom we deem worthy. YouTube comments penned from the gratefulness that comes from witnessing what could have been if born with darker skin or of a lower class bounce around the echo chamber built from access and Internet, using distance to excuse personal involvement because of the perceived risk.

The collective slumber we are under; bystanders to the world around us are only broken when our sphere of influence is affected, through degrees of social separation. What we artists and journalists tell ourselves is that our contribution is made to get the story its deserved representation and to allow the subjects of the story the agency and platform for actual understanding, not some pigeonholed tone-deaf framework that allows for an arms-length look into the so-called underbelly that keeps the greater society afloat.

This underbelly Laita perpetuates isn’t soft, nor white, but disproportionately people of color who are hardened by life’s cruel touch.Gifted with resiliency to survive our capitalist machine of society. Oppression does not make us less beautiful, less wise, or less valid in the eyes of privilege, and Laita’s work does a masterful job at widening the lens that would otherwise only fit into stereotypical bias and the exception to the rule. Yet the episodic nature of following one’s journey through poverty and addiction without actionable change married to awareness is just a cyclical wheel of predictive persecution; one that is commodified by gatekeepers of reform and monetized by YouTube algorithms.

Laita hides his “uncut, uncensored” footage behind a Patreon paywall, never truly divulging what kind of aid Amanda or any of his subjects receive; selling potential redemption stories and current downfalls like housewares on Etsy. He asks his interviewees if they need help, goading them into this fleeting form of dependence upon Laita as if their circumstance and position in life don’t already scream the abolition of systemic oppression and the induction of universal healthcare and rehabilitation.

Knowing Amanda probably took a hit of whatever illicit vice she was addicted to before becoming the subject of one of his most popular visual works screams exploitation; and while some might see it as an effective reality check for the desensitized citizenry of the United States, the lack of solution juxtaposed against his tone-deaf, savior-like lens doesn’t trend anywhere near a positive outcome.

What it does is reinforce years of bigotry through commodified poverty porn as an outlet for the privilege to feel as though their morality isn’t wasted on just themselves, but for some greater good they know won’t come without their voice attached to it.

This is the grey area we settle for, selling part of ourselves to become the unknowing martyr for a cause that’ll never be resolved as long as money can be made from oppression. When art and action coincide in a crescendo we can all hear, a revolution that results in quantifiable change heard around the echo chamber political affiliation traps us within. This is when the societal shift many of us have dreamed of will come to pass. Until then, we fall at the mercy of gatekeepers who sip from silver spoons and righteousness, peddling experience as a novelty like bus tours of the ghetto. Intent isn’t at question, for that is as unknown as to where the wind goes when lost to the world, but the methodology behind who and how one spreads “awareness” is the real riddle.

Ever-evolving is the answer to the conundrum of privilege versus awareness turning into actionable change, yet one can dream about the portrayal of black and brown folk adhering not to the stereotypical lens advantaged perception affords but to the historical influence we have had on this nation. We are neither the underbelly nor the brain, but the heart of this country, forgotten under the guise of capitalist individualism and continued neglect as if our nation’s blood pressure never mattered.

Vulnerable, but never soft, not by choice but by circumstance.

Lando Chill

The Chicago born & raised rap artist / songwriter Lando Chill has been making waves & turning heads in the deep Southwest, calling Tucson, Arizona his current musical home base of operation. Even whilst growing up in a choir & theatre orientated background due to his mother, music wasn’t a prerogative until, by chance, he was cast in a University of Arizona Film School short in 2013 & tasked to lend his voice. From that point on, Lando has been on an enthralling journey through music, touring the country in 2015 & developing new records with his band, comprised of Chris “Deep Greasy” Pierce and Andy “Lasso” C. The blend of art and emotion puts them creatively in a league with artists like Gil Scott Heron, J. Cole, and The Roots. – Mello Music Group

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Tags: Black Women, Mark Laita, Race, White Privilege


What is the meaning of Soft White Underbelly? ›

phrase. DEFINITIONS1. the part of something such as an organization or plan that is weakest and easiest to attack. The affair highlighted the internet's soft underbelly. Synonyms and related words.

How old is Mark from Soft White Underbelly? ›

Kelly's interview was among many that Los Angeles-based photographer Mark Laita, 60, has filmed for his passion-project YouTube channel, Soft White Underbelly, over the past three years.

How do I contact a mark from Soft White Underbelly? ›

"The Source" is a live call-in program airing Mondays through Thursdays from 12-1 p.m. Leave a message before the program at (210) 615-8982.

Who is Mark laita Soft White Underbelly? ›

Mark Laita is a long time photographer and creator of the project Soft White Underbelly, making it a prime focus of his career in recent years.

Where does the name Soft White Underbelly come from? ›

JL: So what started that [uploading] and where did the name Soft White Underbelly come from? ML: Winston Churchill, when he was advising the United States during World War II [on] how to attack Germany called Italy the soft white underbelly of Europe, meaning it's the most vulnerable part.

What does white belly mean? ›

noun. : any of several birds with wholly or partly white underparts: such as. : baldpate sense 2. : prairie chicken sense 1.

Is there a Soft White Underbelly podcast? ›

Soft White Underbelly and The Immersive Van Gogh Experience | Green Room On Air with Ray Renati | Podcasts on Audible |

Where can I watch white underbelly? ›

For ad-free, uncensored videos and plenty of exclusive content please subscribe to the Soft White Underbelly subscription channel. It's $10 a month and watchable on Apple and Android mobile apps, Roku TV, Apple TV and Amazon Fire.

Who is Sharpe the pimp? ›

Robert Sharpe, a pimp convicted of beating a woman and leaving her nearly dead, stands for his sentencing. He received life without parole.

Why do animals have white underbelly? ›

By having a pale belly and a dark back, animals balance out the amount of light that reflects off their bodies. The dark back absorbs more, the pale belly reflects more. The contrast between top and bottom is diminished, and it is easier to blend in.

Why is my belly button White during pregnancy? ›

The “white belly button” is a benign physiological phenomenon; it appears as a sudden demarcation of “white areas” or a “skin pallor” that affects the skin due to a vascular abnormality resulting from an excessive stretching of the skin.

What kind of bird has a white belly? ›

White-bellied Waterbirds

This is a characteristic of many seabirds such as Puffins and Razorbills. Underwater predators including some species of shark frequently prey on seabirds but can have problems discerning them against the sky.

Who is the sharp? ›

The Sharp were a Melbourne three-piece pop, rockabilly band which formed in 1991 with Allan Catlin on double bass and lead vocals, Piet Collins on drums and Charlie Rooke on guitar and lead vocals. They issued two studio albums, This Is the Sharp (1993) and Sonic Tripod (1994).

Where is sharp from no jumper from? ›

Nashua, New Hampshire

Where can I watch Underbelly for free? ›

Underbelly - watch online: stream, buy or rent

Currently you are able to watch "Underbelly" streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Sky Go, Virgin TV Go or for free with ads on STV Player, Pluto TV, Freevee Amazon Channel. It is also possible to buy "Underbelly" as download on Amazon Video.

What channel can I watch Underbelly? ›

How to Watch Underbelly. Right now you can watch Underbelly on Amazon Prime. You are able to stream Underbelly by renting or purchasing on Amazon Instant Video.

Where can I watch Underbelly Season 4? ›

Watch Underbelly: Razor Online | Stream Season 4 Now | Stan.

Where can I watch Underbelly in the UK? ›

Watch Underbelly | Prime Video.

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