I’ll let you decide for yourself because I’m not sure
The “Soft White Underbelly” Youtube channel is the pet project of a 60-year-old photographer named Mark Laita.
Laita interviews pimps, sex workers, addicts, shooting victims, and even Ku Klux Klan members and pays them money for their interviews.
In these somberly-lit videos, the people being interviewed talk about their childhood and why they think they ended up where they did.
They tell their stories of being beaten, molested, or trafficked as children while dissolving into tears.
Laita uploads the videos to his YouTube channel where people comment on them.
There are two types of commenters, as usual.
The first demographic of viewers are the people who genuinely empathize with the subject’s struggles and want to see a change in the system.
The other group of people are there for shock entertainment and treat these people as a joke. They also question the validity of their stories.
Maybe the way the interviewees are portrayed has a part to play in their reaction?
What is the mission of the Soft White Underbelly?
Mark Laita shot an introduction video to the Soft White Underbelly. In the video, he sympathetically states, “I want to bring awareness to a system that is broken”.
He tells us that he has spent over 150,000 dollars helping addicts on the street with their needs. He has bought cell phones, tents, shoes, and other items for many homeless people.
He goes on to say that these gestures of financial kindness have nothing to do with Soft White Underbelly’s mission.
Their mission is to bring awareness to a broken system and inspire parents to take care of their children now because how they are raised will determine their future.
After viewing a couple of his videos, I asked myself: “When does bringing awareness to the plight of marginalized people become exploitative?”
Even if it wasn’t purposeful on Mark’s part, some of his content seems to be treading a fine line between hurtful and helpful.
Is the Soft White Underbelly’s Content Hurtful or Helpful?
Every viewer has their own take on his videos.
Personally, I felt very uncomfortable watching his content.
For one, the stories are horrific. Many of us cannot fathom the struggles these people have gone through.
On the flip side, these videos do help people understand the root of addiction and provides the viewer with insight into a world that is unfamiliar to us.
Secondly, the people who are interviewed on Soft White Underbelly are being paid for their segments.
Are they telling their story because they want to bring awareness or are they sharing their plight because they are starving or going through withdrawals from their addictions?
If they are starving and getting money for their interviews, Mark may be helping these people. If they are using the money to fund their addiction, this monetary reward is only adding to their downward spiral.
Are they even in the right state of mind to consent to being viewed by millions of people on the internet?
Then there is the emotional impact of baring your soul.
I receive therapy for different reasons, and after I talk about a heavy issue with my counselor, I feel drained, sad, and depleted for a few days. I assume the subjects of these videos feel the same way and worse after they bare their soul to the Soft White Underbelly.
After a tough therapy session, I grab a few snacks and relax with my husband, I talk to my best friend on the phone or I take a bubble bath to relax. Then I complete the structured tasks my therapist has assigned me to help me deal with my feelings.
These people are marginalized and vulnerable. To my knowledge, they are not given advice by a professional about how to cope with their issues. Sadly, they may not have the financial means to practice the self-care we enjoy daily.
After watching these kinds of videos, I always wonder what these people do after baring their souls.
Do some of them go back to using drugs or drinking to numb the emotions that come with digging up their past?
Alternatively, do some of them realize they need help and begin a road to redemption (in the case of the criminal subjects) or sobriety?
After their videos become viral, which some of them already have, this could prevent them from gaining employment in the future.
Allegedly, they signed a waiver before filming their segments. Their interview and images are now the legal property of Mark Laita.
Meet the Whitaker family
I have decided to talk about one of the newer videos on the Soft White Underbelly Youtube channel. I chose this video because the way the family was treated during the video really bothered me.
This video was about a family of elderly people who reside in a small town in the Appalachian region of the United States.
The title for this video? “Inbred Family- The Whitakers”.
The video depicts a family of three siblings and a cousin living in a small home with several dogs.
This is what Mark Laita states in the video description:
The individuals in this video are brothers and sisters, except for Timmy who is a cousin. There is no way I would be able to confirm that the Whitaker parents were related, but given that this does happen in this part of the country and the Whitakers are the most extreme case I’ve seen so far, I would bet that inbreeding was at least partly responsible for the mental and physical abnormalities seen in Lorraine, Freddie, Ray, and Timmy.
To be clear about my interaction with the family, I brought them pizzas and soft drinks and paid them nicely, which goes a long way in southwestern West Virginia where the average yearly income is as low as $12K a year in some counties. This was my fourth visit and I’ve given the family a financial gift each time.
In a disclaimer shown at the beginning of the video, it reveals that a neighbor showed up during the filming of the interview with a shotgun and threatened Mark Laita to leave the Whitakers alone.
The neighbor left after Laita spoke to him.
Ray, the only living son in the Whitaker family, is eager to talk and welcomes Laita into their home.
Ray’s sisters (The more talkative sister did not give her name and Lorraine, who may be non-verbal as well) and the cousin Timmy seem almost apprehensive about Laita’s presence at their home. They sit on old armchairs on their dilapidated porch, silent and aware.
Their parents died long ago.
Ray is obviously a kind soul, cradling a dog as Laita “interviews” him.
Ray is non-verbal and can only communicate by barking like the tiny dog he has in his lap.
While taking us on a very brief tour of their property, Ray has a big smile on his face and barks at the camera as if he is saying “What a nice day we are having today, thank you for visiting me!”
When Laita asks him about his life, he gesticulates and it is fully apparent that while he can understand the questions he is being asked, he is not capable to answer them verbally.
Ray’s two sisters are relaxing on their porch while Laita asks them invasive questions about their parents such as “Were your parents brother and sister, or cousins or something?” and “The mental disorder that Ray has, what is that from?”.
Obviously embarrassed, the sisters shake their heads to say no and the verbal sister gives one or two-word answers to these inquires. She is not fully answering Laita’s questions even though she is able to.
The interview clips are separated by a slow-motion “zoom-in” on the Whitaker’s family photos. The camera makes it obvious that it is focusing on their dirty clothes.
They look blissfully happy in these photographs, which were shot by Laita.
Laita asks Ray about his brother Freddy who died of a heart attack. Ray looks like he wants to talk about Freddy, but he can’t.
He leads Laita to a pile of dirt in front of their home and barks and points. Despite his limited ability to be verbal, it is obvious that he is telling us “This is Freddy’s grave”.
There was no headstone for Freddy, only dirt.
Ray’s verbal sister is clearly exhibiting closed-off body language. Whenever Laita asks her a question, she looks like she knows more than she’s comfortable saying.
She has the right to protect her family’s privacy and if she doesn’t want to answer Laita’s questions, she shouldn’t.
When Laita says goodbye, the three family members sit on the couch and barely acknowledge him.
Ray looks happy.
I think he was just happy to have someone new to talk to.
How Much Money Are the Subjects of the Soft White Underbelly Paid to Bare Their Souls?
So why would the Whitakers agree to be interviewed when it was clear that everyone except Ray seemed uncomfortable with Laita’s presence?
It’s possible that money was a motivator. Many of the other subjects of Laita’s videos were scouted by Laita on skid row in LA according to an article in “The Washington Post”.¹
It is not mentioned where he met the Whitakers in the video, but Laita says he has known them for years.
According to The Washington Post, Laita pays 20–40 dollars for interviews with drug addicts and other marginalized people who aren’t putting themselves at risk of being arrested due to the footage.
Allegedly, Mark pays up to 100 dollars to the people who are more at risk of being exposed to law enforcement like pimps, hitmen, and sex workers.
For a family who is as poor as the Whitakers, this is a lot of money.
However, it’s probably less money than Laita will make from the YouTube monetization he will receive from the 52,000 views the video has garnered.
Transparency to their viewers or safety risk?
I watched this video twice to make sure I understood Laita’s purpose for interviewing the Whitakers and to evaluate the body language of the family.
I hate giving views to content that makes me feel so uncomfortable but it bothered me so much that I had to share my thoughts with my readers.
I’ve wanted to write about this channel for a while now but I decided to give Laita a chance to do some good with his project.
Mark Laita has told the world the name of the small town that the Whitakers reside in but has asked viewers to leave them alone at the beginning of the video.
Why would he disclose their location?
Why would he call the video “The Whitakers- Inbred Family”, when the video description says that he isn’t able to prove that incest was a part of their family linage? I am going to assume he titles his videos in this way to draw his viewers into clicking on them.
We will never know for certain if this family is a product of incest because the sisters refused to answer the questions about who their parents were and how they met.
Entire families can have offspring that have cognitive difficulties and various disabilities. I personally know families like this and their parents were not related. Since the parents of Ray and Lorraine are no longer alive, we will probably never know if their parents were related or not.
Now that their location has been disclosed to the Soft White Underbelly’s 1 million subscribers, the Whitaker family is no longer an anonymous family living in a quiet town.
This loss of anonymity could put their safety at risk.
According to The Washington Post, the release waiver Laita gives to all his subjects states that they acknowledge he has the right to publish their pictures and videos on his platforms.
The kind fans of the Youtube channel have created “Go Fund Me” accounts for some of the subjects in the Soft White Underbelly’s videos.
Laita has set up a Go Fund Me account for the Soft White Underbelly so he can fund the making of his mini-documentaries. He even made a fundraising campaign to raise money for the Whitakers to purchase a new home.
While this is a very kind gesture, does it really help these people, especially if their identity and location are publicly disclosed?
Many of the people in these videos are vulnerable.
Now that their identifies are on the internet and most Go Fund Me accounts usually show the amount of money raised for a cause, this could be a problem.
This leaves the interviewees open to being exploited by con-artists who know they have a lot of money.
If a person lives on skid row with other vulnerable people who know they have thousands of dollars at their disposal, this exposes them to being robbed or worse.
Is the money the interviewees receive to bare their souls worth the risk to their safety?
Do Poor Choices Amount to Nefarious Intentions?
Part of me believes that Mark Laita has good intentions and that he does want to help people. He appears to be a very empathetic man who wants to share the stories of marginalized people to educate his viewers on what can happen when you have lost hope.
In my opinion, he has made some poor choices in the way he depicts his subjects, his choice of subject, the titles of his videos, and the exposure of their identities.
I think interviewing an Imperial Wizard for the KKK was a very poor choice of subject. They do not need more exposure to feed their hate. Thankfully, there has been no Go Fund Me erected for those bastards.
Recently, one of Laita’s other videos has come under fire for racial exploitation, I will leave this story to be covered by a writer of color. It is their story to tell and I can’t speak to how a Person of Color feels about the Soft White Underbelly.
I don’t know if these mini-documentaries are helping or hindering the addicts and marginalized people they feature but something feels very wrong to me when I watch them.
How can we help these people?
Do we donate to the Go Fund Me accounts and hope they get an apartment and stay sober or refrain from committing crimes?
Do we watch their interviews and share them on social media, then go about our daily routine?
Do we take the time to deeply contemplate how we impact others and what part we play in their lives? Maybe we can improve our relationships with our children to stop the cycle of addiction in our society?
I know, it probably seems like I’m playing both sides here, but I’m not.
I’m genuinely confused about how to feel about the Soft White Underbelly Youtube channel. Usually, I take a strong stance in my articles, but this subject is too convoluted for me to wrap my head around.
For now, I’m going to refrain from watching Mark Laita’s videos and channel my curiosity into something less divisive.
After all, curiosity will kill the cat.