I had a good childhood. As I grew older, it started to occur to me that maybe everyone was not as fortunate, but I felt compassion in an undefined sort of way, donated a little, and for a while, that seemed to be enough.
Over time, I developed an interest in capturing images of the world around me, and dreamed of a career in documentary photography. At college, while working on my BFA, I felt it would be an interesting challenge to photograph lives that were completely different from my privileged life. With that in mind, I got in touch with a homeless shelter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania – the Waterstreet Rescue Mission.
Looking back, I started my project with stereotypical, preconceived ideas of what the word “homeless” meant. A concept, alien and scary, that I thought I understood, but did not, really. What I found was a place that people called home. Running in between the cafeteria’s tables were beautiful children, smiling, playful. Proud parents were talking, enjoying, scolding, feeding and caring for them, just like every loving parent I’d ever met.
That was surprising, and I introduced myself to the parents and children, asking permission to enter their lives temporarily. Everyone was very approachable, curious about the ancient camera in my hands and willing to humor me in the name of education. My (admittedly simplistic) stereotypes of homelessness and poverty were being challenged. My assignment then became one of documenting whole, vibrant, generous people living in a difficult situation. It was a homeless shelter, so I knew there had to be serious undercurrents in many of their lives that were not immediately evident, but you never would have known from the generous welcome I received. I do not know what I had expected, but I wanted to share with my classmates what I had seen.
The response to my assignment was encouraging; everyone was curious and interested. People were intrigued with my observations and I moved forward with my project. The perfect opportunity came up in the summer of 2007 when I was invited on a trip to Tijuana with a group that travels to Mexico to build homes for the poor every summer.
What I observed in Lancaster I also found in Mexico. Families were dignified, pleased with life and grateful for everything they had. It wasn’t about material possessions; it was about family, culture and respect. They too, despite the language barrier, were curious about my camera and willing to humor me. I came back with rolls of photographs, which would later become the main focus of my junior year.
My attention during my senior year switched to Louisiana. Visiting the devastation left behind by Hurricane Katrina, I met those who were working to rebuild their community. Another important lesson I learned was that they did not want me to merely document the devastation of Katrina, but to capture in images their undying spirit, their unwillingness to give up and leave the city, culture and community they loved so much. Because I had the opportunity to visit these places more than once, I was initially a fly on the wall, but eventually became a returning friend welcomed with open arms.
Eventually, images from Tijuana, New Orleans and Lancaster became my Senior Thesis. My experiences within these communities reinforced the connections between community, art in culture and art in friendship and play. When curious to know how my camera worked, I explained. One of my favorite things was to take a group shot and bringing one child over to look into the camera and press the shutter button. The idea that they had just created an image – especially one where their friends were involved, thrilled them. On the next visit I would bring the print for them to keep. It seemed to be the very least I could do for such generosity, for people who had done so much for me.
I also began bringing along crayons, paper and chalk. The children I worked with did not need any instruction when presented with these items – they began creating and the excitement was palpable. People of all ages became involved. Because they were engrossed in the process of creating, I realized everyone was more open and relaxed in front of my camera, and the photos had more depth and honest emotion. Their very expressions became a story to which the viewer was drawn.
My journey has taught me more about people and human nature than I would ever have expected. I have been fortunate to take portraits of people who radiate dignity and respect for themselves, for their families and for their unique cultures. I want to continue developing my own personal work within the community – but if I have learned anything, it is that I cannot only consider those I meet as subjects. They have much to teach me, with their own stories to tell, and my photography has to allow them to take active roles in creating their story. I will listen and demand of myself that I give them a voice as honestly as I know how.
Art is a great equalizer and unifier and can be incorporated to enhance the spirit of community. In my ideal world, I would continue to travel to unique cultures, be fortunate enough to be allowed in, and document the communities within them. My goal is to use the insights and training I receive with an MFA in Community Arts to build upon my experiences and to utilize those skills to bring art into any community I visit.