michael f mcelroy – an american nightmare

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Michael F McElroy

An American Nightmare

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According to the “getting paid in America” survey, 71% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck… The belief that those in trouble are the poor is no longer true. The current wave of foreclosure across the nation is affecting all income levels.  Presently the foreclosure crisis  has seen 1 million homes fall into foreclosure since 2006, with an additional 5.9 million expected over the next four years.  All it takes is the unexpected, the loss of a job, an illness in the family, and things start to spiral out of control.

Howard Mallinger and his family were hit by the unexpected. They had moved to Sunrise, Florida, 3 years ago from the Bronx to live their version of “the American Dream”: they put down most of their life savings on a condominium. Life was grand, when without any warning Sheryl was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Howard was told by the doctors that his wife had only a few months to live, and they should prepare for her death. That’s when things started to spiral out of control. They got behind on their mortgage and utilities. Howard tried to negotiate with their lenders to no avail.  The bank foreclosed on their home and the power was turned off six months ago. With hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills piling up, Howard had to file for bankruptcy.  This is not the script an embattled Howard Mallinger, 65, planned for his twilight years. Though Mallinger is now broke and feels humiliated by his circumstances, his commitment to Sheryl and his kids is unwavering, despite battling his own ailments, including trouble walking.

Howard says “I wonder about my future, and it scares me”.  Now, Howard’s future consists of spending his days at the nursing home, and his nights at a condo he may soon lose.  It’s become a day-to-day routine of which Howard says  “It’s hard… It’s getting very, very hard to keep doing it every day. People wonder how I do it. I don’t know.”


Michael F McElroy is a contract photojournalist based in Miami, Florida, and represented by Zuma and Wonderful Machine. His work encompasses news, portraits, features and urban landscapes. McElroy spent 2008 covering the Presidential election, and in 2009 he has been working on stories about the Economic Crisis and how its affecting people and the American landscape.


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Editor’s Note: Please only one comment per person under this essay.. Further discussions should take place under Dialogue..

Many thanks… david alan harvey

33 Responses to “michael f mcelroy – an american nightmare”

  • Tough story. Going on all the time i suppose but well portrayed here. Health-care in america sounds like a joke.
    Not entirely feeling the ‘cleanness’ of the BW, and a couple of frames jarred a bit, but this is after all a story and not an art project so I dont think it will be an issue for anyone else. Also thats just my opinion about the treatment anyway.
    Good work on a moving story, I hope it works out for him.


  • The story seems to me more about the imminent loss of his wife rather than the loss of his lifestyle. Of course its a very sad story and the poor man is facing losses from every front. Though hopefully his kids will help him out and his future won’t be so empty as most of your story makes it sound.


    Loved this when I saw it on ZUMA’s Reportage and still feel the same. Nice work!

  • Touching story… From the aesthetic point of view these B&W look too clean, IMHO color images would be even better.

  • to me it looks more like “Howard’s Nightmare” and in this light i think there are too many similar pictures in the edit. with a different take it could become a broader nightmare.

    i wish them strenght.

  • Nice work Michael

    These photographs are sensitive and gentle, and tell the story beautifully. I don’t know how the forclosure aspect could have been illustrated, but when supported by the text, the effect is clear.

    Being a non-American, I always feel hesitant to comment on touchy issues, but people going bankrupt over “medical bills” is absolutely criminal and obcene. I don’t know why the American public puts up with it.

  • gun of brixton on your site.. great.

    i’m glad to see a story from you michael.. you’re two singles were great, (blooded buy and the bullshit glasses), although i much prefer seeing more.

    tenderly told story here, which i guess is incomplete..
    the situation is not only heartbreaking it’s also probably more common than people know.

    along with david mc’s garage sale, i think this kind of work says a great deal more than more conceptual approaches to the recession.. i certainly prefer it to dying ohio, although the technique is spot on for the later.

    it would be great if the work these people have let you continue could in some way benefit them in kind..


  • Nice essay, I think you did a good job of conveying the ‘this is not where i thought i would be’ side of the story. Like a couple others here on the site, I think this edit could just as easily be termed ‘the end of the road’ or something along the lines, in the priority given to scenes in the hospital.

    As far as the story you’re shooting for, that florida did not turn out the way they expected, i especially liked the photos of helplessness to accomplish this goal. The image of him sitting on the couch in front of a picturesque landscape in the background, photo 7, where he is looking longingly at white light outside while his wife is lying in the gurney behind him and the image immediately after where he has a dumbfounded look while sitting at the gurney. Of course, something like cancer is out of our control, and would have occurred regardless of the economic situation. But I think that this story nonetheless is transferable to the situation of many during this recession, a sentiment of ‘wtf happened’, where something completely out of the hands of most disrupted the expectations and hopes of so many. To that end, I think this is an effective setting to capture the consequences of the recession.

    As far as a critique goes (I hope this doesn’t sound insensitive), it is somewhat predictable to mix pictures of a wife dying of cancer with images of dispair (such as the cover image). This essay has a very strong humanistic touch to it, so it’s definitely important to retain these images (and maybe its just my personal preferences), but I’d like to see how this story fits into the ‘bigger picture’. It seems that you weren’t given access to the foreclosure aspect (I imagine that that is not a priority for the husband, the woman he loves is dying), but maybe if you opened up the story a little bit, it might give more strength to the context of the recession. This routine you spoke of, going to and from the condo and the nursing home I think might provide this aspect, he is driving by things he had hope to/dreamed of doing; I’d be interested to see what is going on in Sunrise, Florida, in the midst of this tragedy.

    Well done

  • “71% of Americans live from paycheck to paycheck”

    More than 2/3 of the world have problem with live from paycheck to paycheck. In many palces one person work for bills only and one for food (or even no).

    Quite good essay. Very difficould theme. Hard to show through images.

  • Michael,

    I like your essay. The use of black and white, together with the stark, ‘cleanness’ of the images tells of a life in the face of some difficult, and perhaps equally stark choices. We could question the economic or political aspects of the story but the human content is, for me, made very clear.

  • Michael, it’s really difficult to post a comment about this essay without switching inmediately to how …ed up is the health-care system in the US. For me, it’s just impossible to understand that you can lose your house and life savings over an unexpected disease, no matter which.

    Your photographs almost made me puke. Take that as a strong compliment.

  • Michael,

    Thank you for these pictures. I found it difficult to view them, heart wrenching work. I’m not concerned with the technique. The images are so good that one doesn’t notice the technique, that’s how it should be with great photography.

    Like Ramon, I just find it impossible to comprehend how a family can find themselves in such a mess when one of them needs medical treatment. Just incredible, and I’m sure there are many more families out there in the same situation.

  • The photos are good, but the photos don’t tell the story in your artist’s statement. They tell another story.

  • your pictures say more about the loss of his wife (even though she is still alive) and his grief in dealing with such unexpected turns in his life not so much about the foreclosure issue. i think the thought of losing his house just tops the pie.

    i think black and white works for me though i am not sure what others mean about clean. grain maybe?

  • Seduced by the unadultered B&W. Reminds me a little of Ryans essay emt, clean b&w seems to be less in the face and less about the characters but the environment in which the characters exist and the characters that embody the environment. I think a couple of shots in this essay do this well like the opening shot and one of him sitting in hospital on the examining chair. These shots for me come across slightly posed when combined with the other more grouped people shots (maybe less so with a different edit). Don’t think this is a problem but then I don’t think the ‘posed’ shots really push in such a personal story. I wish to see some of the more posed (sorry can’t think of a better term at the moment) with other people in the shot not to do with the personal story (could be three guys with the same story sitting next to each other in hospital etc). I think this would be needed to tell the story of the ‘general American crisis’, but i’m often in favor of less personal essays but ones that attempt to convey the gestalt. How the man struggles with his situation and his environment interests me more than the story of the wife and the progression of her disease.

  • Fantastic Story. So sad… Terrifying future
    Well photographed… wow

  • Michael, I looked at your photos before reading the text. The story your images told touched me deeply. They told of the love of a man for a woman who is obviously quite ill and either in a hospital or nursing facility. I felt his deep sadness in every frame. For some reason the one that really got under my skin was of him sitting on the examining table. This made me realize he has health problems of his own. I saw their sons with their faces set in masks of endurance. Yet the woman’s face never showed a change of expression, making me wonder if her illness had mental as well as physical components.

    All that is what I saw by simply looking at your photos with no background or explanation. To me, the story told in that wordless way was powerful enough.

    So then I read your text. Yes, it filled out the picture and made their situation even more heartwrenching, but I wished you’d been able to show hints of the financial crisis in images rather than in words alone. Would this still be possible? Even a picture of him looking over the bills might help. Is his electricity still off? If so, how could you show that?

    Any details you can show to help the viewer see the connection between this man’s situation and the economic crisis would enrich the essay, so you don’t have to depend solely on your text to tell that part of the story.

    Your photography is superb. Thank you for taking on such a timely subject and giving it a human face.


  • unbearably sad…i can´t even imagine. wonderful work. thank you..



    you may remember that when we were editing Falling Into Place there were some very important things in your mind and in your life that just did not pictures make….most great essays are very very narrow in their photographic representations of all that may be deemed “important”…pull your favorite books off the shelf …make a list of facts hypothetically pertinent to that book…i think you will see what i mean….most great books show only a small part of the “whole story” as does your book…

    particularly in pure photojournalistic essays, as Michael’s, which are generally a marriage of words and pictures…and like any marriage, there are different roles to play….words do some things, pictures do others…

    of course, if Michael had a very strong picture that somehow represented the financial situation he is in or the fact that his electricity is off, then surely that would be fine…but, by your own words, you were struck by the visual essay itself until you read the text and then you started wanting more, not based on emotional grounds but on academic grounds……surely a gratuitous picture of Howard looking at his bills would certainly not work even if the financial situation is an important fact in his life…photographers would do well to not think of the a, b, c’s of anything…

    think about this…the strongest photographs in this essay are not something you probably would have thought about by reading words and making a list..

    for example, take the picture of Howard sitting on the examining table..such a strong photograph, yet not purely “illustrative” of anything said in words…if you had read Michaels words , i doubt you would have said “hmmmm, Michael i think you should have a picture of Howard sitting on an examining table”…that picture came from being a sensitive photographer , being visual, not from ticking off a list….

    photographers should of course be aware of all of the “facts”, yet i do not think every single fact requires an accompanying photograph…the very best photographs do what words can never do and the very best words do what photographs can never do…

    you wrote “To me, the story told in that wordless way was powerful enough.”…i think perhaps you were right the first time…

    cheers, david

  • intimate…
    felt as if I was listening
    to a secret….
    a true document,
    to be

  • Fine work, Michael.

    Though I do agree with the comments that the pictures themselves do not tell the story in the text (about middle class going broke “just like that”). Basically, if Howard still had his home and the insurance to cover the costs of illness, every picture would still be valid. Like Patricia did, I think it is a point well worth bringing about.

    I must also say that my first reaction (to the text) is : what is the story behind them not being insured, or not being covered, not having some medicare kick in? This is my main problem with the essay: we are made to feel as if Howard’s case needs no such specific information. Just as we would, rightly so this time, need no specific behind the picture of a starving orphan ina country ravaged by war.

    I also agree with Marcin. More than 71% in the world do not even have paychecks, or medicare. With no recourse to bankruptcy as well, needless say.

  • Few months ago, I saw a similar report: a couple had lost everything because of the cancer of his wife. They had worked all their life, I believe that she was an editor in a magazine, she had a good income, and the assurance did not any more want to cover them… they lost everything their house, she, her job… because expensive medical care which are at their expense… they went to live at their daughter and they felt that they were not welcome…
    I like your work, it is a story so sad and so common, I like that the text does not tell the same thing as the images, otherwise what interest to read it.
    thanks for sharing,
    all the best,

  • Lovely work. You convey a situation of love and dispair very well in only 13 frames. To me the photos are well in line with your statement.

  • Michael: :)))

    first of all, a big congratulations on publishing the Mallinger family story. I too was deeply moved by the photographs for both photographic/emotional reasons and personal. Some of the most moving and powerful photographs wrung my heart, as given the context, we’re left realing from the sadness and weight and tremendous responsibility of caring for a loved one, losing a loved one and still trying to bully up the foundations of the life that had been set in place. The photograph of Mr. Mallinger sitting on the examination table is an extraordinary one…everything that this story conveys and contains is suggested in that image: his wife’s mortality, his loneliness, the weight of the burden of the circumstanes, his own mortality, his herculian strength and the expression caught in the hunch of his brows, and the his determination and will to shoulder this and to resist despair…it is an extraordinary image of a profund moment…..

    Not only was i moved by their story and difficulty, but i felt the text was important too. While the focus of the image is the illness of Mrs. Mallinger, and that this entails, we do get resonances of other consequences, which sneak into the images…the extraordiary opening image, as if the House of Usher, with Mr. Mallinger and his son, the condo steeped in shadow and dreary rain slick light, sitting alone beneath the very-florida-condo painting, the dual reflection on the lanai porch….all of this suggests that what was once a support (the home) for this family, bares the risk of salvaging away….And the text absolutely contextualized for me the additional consequnces of this family’s tremendous ill fortune. Actually, i did NOT want pictures that literalize the financial crisis, because once you’ve offered that to us in the way of background, we see it there in the images…for example photo #6…and elsewhere, small pivots of detail, that once i knew the backstory made perfect sense…for me, a good text should never explain pictures per se, but provide either detail that is additional/supplementary or poetic reaction. I’m thinkin of that remarkable story that Tom Hyde shaed with us (and was posted a A Photo Editor) about the multimple amputee in virginia. the 10,000 word essay provided additinal information that was not ‘in the pictures’ but allowed us to dig further into the story of that young woman’s remarkable ordeal. So too here. The most significant event is unfolding in front of our eyes, and you, as a journalist, have shared with us the additional consequences of this family’s ordeal, something that not everyone would immediately understand…for me, the best of texts surves to add, to supplement, to compliment images, to offer a double narrative: that of the spoken and that of the visual….and i received both here….

    I hope you continue to keep us posted on the journey that this family endures and i wish them the best. On a personal note, this story hit profoundly close to home. In 1999, my father had a major heart attack and he was uninsured. Two years later, he had a second heart attack. Subsequently, he lost everything he’d worked his life for: his home, his life’s savings, his small inheritance from my grandmother and grandaunt and he left his retirement and now lives in a tiny 1 room apartment, in florida, and works in a small office and will, has he always reminds, have to work the length of this days…everything that he’d hoped to free himself and give his grandchildren, gone. though has i remind him continually, he has what is most important, his health and his family.

    A timely timely story in a moment and age when Americans, most americans, fail to see the failure o their nation in terms of protecting people from their most basic need: the welfare of their families….

    a simple and unadorned and powerful story told with humility and grace.

    thank you for sharing michael. I wish the Mallinger’s strength and endurance and love…


  • Thanks for all of the comments!! Howard’s story is not unfamiliar in this country or others. With the country in a foreclosure and health care crisis I wish more of these story were being told, we often hear the numbers on TV but rarely see a person to put a face on the story. ( i am working with two other who are in similar situations) Howard’s story to me is about loss the loss of his wife, the loss of his home the loss of a connection and a life that once was, I wanted the photographs to show that loss to have that empty feeling. I myself have wondered how to show the foreclosure aspect of this? since at the moment he has not been evicted, and his electric has been turned back on ( no one knows who paid the bills it just came back on one day). the bank sale is later this month and i will be attending .. His wife Sheryl also passed away a few weeks ago, just after they renewed their wedding vows. As far as his kids, they both suffer from severe depression and he has a hard time taking care of them. I’m currently still working on his story seeing were it takes me…. I have spent some much time with Howard he’s become a good friend and see him or talk to him at least once a week, he at the moment doesn’t know which way to turn but he is very strong person and he will come out of this okay..

    Bob, What happened to you father should never happen to anyone in this Country and our leaders should be ashamed!!! someone posted this on my facebook a couple of days ago and it reads so true ” No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.”

  • I thought this was very well timed in terms of politics… economic recession and health care debate hand in hand. Top marks for that. On the other hand, I think that the short essay was too commited to images of illness and suffering, maybe a bit too traditional. In that sense I thought it would have touched me more if I had seen some of their own personal photographs. Images that conveyed the dream they were pursuing and how it got hacked away. I think if this was one of a series of subprojects that focused on the text, that would be fine. I’d like to see some of those people (71% of the population) who are unaware that they are a paycheck away of living under a bridge.

  • it is a truly sad story, although i think it is the story of the american people and our future. our world has been driven by greed for so long that now when people are suffering many have blind eyes. oddly enough, i think you are telling the most important story, but the worst one…the most deceitful one..im not sure if we can catch it.

  • Beautifully shot, especially the light in #7, but very very sad story.

  • chrystal…I agree with you. truly a sad example of the many social ills facing American’s today.

    I was immediately struck by the way that the photographer captured the deepest, innermost feelings of these people. There is a strong sense of trust between the photographer and the subjects. You can look into the people’s eyes and see/feel what’s going on. Eyes often tell the story.

    nice work..
    and my heart goes out to this family and others suffering such hardships..

  • This kills me but i can’t stop looking at it? there is something about his pressed shirts and slacks- something so timeless about him. He just looks like someone who was so totally unprepared for what has happened to him, and he looks so, so vunerable and so lonely. It has me in tears looking at it.
    For me Michael, this is what photography is all about. This series says as much about you as it does Howard. You haven’t sensationalized him, you seem to have just found some very poignant moments in the time you have spent with him. I hope Howard will be okay, and I hope you continue to make this moving work.

  • Strong piece, one of the strongest I have seen here. But not as strong as Howards love towards Sheryl. And when that four letter word is strong enough financial matters take a backseat.

    All the best


  • The pictures stand for themselfs, telling a very strong story. They are in a way graphic, that a empathic person can even feel. The words companion the pictures by giving background to the pictures. One day, I want to tell stories, too.
    Thank you for telling this to us.


  • These kind of stories just aches to be told, I don’t want to dwell too much on the originality. Good work with this impressively tight edit (maybe too tight), I never get the feeling that any picture are out of place, they need to be where they are. I like the way the people get introduced in the start of the essay, but the strongest photographs for me is the one with the umbrella and the one with the wheel chair in the middle of the party. It’s the kind of photographs that I can relate to my own life, even if my life isn’t really similar at all.

    Okey, now I also read the rest of the artist statement, and it gives a much bigger depth to it. Now I understand more and I want to see more. Thanks a lot for sharing!


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