Face Value

 

The face of poverty typically portrayed by mainstream photojournalists is one of despair, sadness, anger, tragedy. A face without joy or self-respect. Look closely and you’ll find these photographs often are staged, with props rearranged to magnify the story’s bathos. Facial expressions and poses seem rehearsed too, as if the photographer were coaching: “Now give me a look of utter desolation. That’s it! … click … Oh, yeah! … click … You’re miserable, you’re hopeless! … click … Perfect! … click!” Photographs like these are the result of a repugnant kind of journalism that strives toward a Pulitzer Prize rather than veracity. Their fundamental achievement is creating a chasm between viewer and subject by suggesting superiority in the former and inferiority in the latter, reinforcing an “us and them” attitude that collapses community and undermines individual responsibility.

There is another face of poverty that rarely appears in news articles, one of joy, confidence, hope and shared humanity. It is the face — and faces — in Artside Out: Images of Childhood, a dual exhibition of black and white portraits by East Coast photographer Simon Fulford and color photos by nine children from the Juniper Gardens community of Kansas City, Kansas. Artside Out is an important exhibition not only because of the quality of the photographs and the messages they convey but also because it is a fine example of regional organizations’ collaborating to demonstrate the value of the arts to the whole of society and its individuals — including those with disabilities.

In their respective mission statements, University of Kansas Medical Center’s Institute for Child Development, Accessible Arts Inc. and Juniper Gardens Children’s Project share a concern for children with disabilities. Travis Thompson, director of the institute, writes, “Children of typical ability growing up in disadvantaged circumstances are at risk for developmental delays due to multiple risk factors associated with poverty.” The exhibition’s child photographers — Beth, Crystal, David, JoAnna, Josh, Juan, Lacy, Mark and Sara — fall into this category. “Such youngsters often have extremely keen and poignant insights into their worlds that emerge through their works of art, though they often have difficulty articulating them verbally.”

After attending a photo workshop, each child received a disposable camera to take photographs of his or her world. All of the children’s photographs selected for Artside Out are valuable, in terms of both artistic originality and content. But a primary goal of the workshop was to “celebrate the many positive images of Kansas City, Kansas, through the eyes of its children,” says Mary Abbott, assistant research professor of Juniper Gardens Children’s Project. The results will surprise and educate viewers (particularly those from Jackson and Johnson counties) who expect to see scenes of abject poverty. For example, Beth’s photographs are sophisticated compositions of interior and exterior scenes of beauty and intimacy. In a nostalgic still life, an infant’s white christening cap and gown are draped on an antique sewing machine cabinet in the corner of a predominantly white wallpapered room. Another photo is of a winter landscape in which a streetlight divides the composition into two panels: the left framing ice-covered trees, gorgeous beneath an afternoon sun; the right framing fragments of an urban landscape. A corona caused by light refracted on the camera’s lens unifies the panels.

Whether Beth made her creative decisions consciously or intuitively is difficult to determine, just as it is difficult to determine in the works of professional art photographers; accident often plays a valuable role in the making of art. Intent is apparent in these works in the children’s determination to depict a world that often is misinterpreted as, in Abbot’s words, “blighted.” Juan, one of the young photographers, explains his joyful portrait of a boy in a bright red coat: “I took this picture because my friend is smiling and I wanted people to see him as I see him, not as they sometimes see him.”

Thompson reinforces this sentiment: “I don’t want viewers to feel sorry for the kids because of the circumstances of their lives, but to recognize how much they are living vital lives despite those circumstances.”

Fulford concurs; thus his presence in the show. “The message of my photography is very simple: We are all human…. If I can get you to see the person, the individual, the human in front of you rather than the color of their skin, their disability or where they are … if you walk away with a closer affinity to others, to life and to human kinship, then I have been successful.”

Fulford’s captivating black and white portraits radiate a vitality and, in many cases, a playfulness and joy unexpected in the faces of children who are homeless or living in poverty, with disabilities or at risk for disabilities. “Chinese Girl: Brooklyn, New York” is a portrait of a young Asian girl with Down’s syndrome. Her gaze is so direct and her smile so buoyant that the spontaneous reaction is to smile back, sharing her exuberance.

“Kids are fantastic,” says Fulford, “because unlike adults, they really aren’t looking for instructions on how to pose — they just do it.”

In fact, many of Fulford’s photographs, such as “On the Street: Trenton, New Jersey,” elicit the same gleeful response, negating the assumption that poverty and disability mean only sorrow and allowing the viewer to connect with Fulford’s subjects on a more intimate, equal level. For regardless of childhood circumstances, everyone has experienced moments of exquisite happiness, the ability to laugh and play without inhibition or self-consciousness. Fulford’s talent is most effective at capturing these moments in his subjects’ lives and thus reminds viewers of our own youthful bliss. Such efficacy is bound to overflow into other pursuits — and does.

As executive director of an organization known as Art Start, Fulford enlists and organizes volunteer artists to teach the arts to homeless and other underserved youth in New York City. He is clear about the value of this work: “The arts are a critically important element to not only education but to life itself…. Our society’s disdain for the arts and its assumption that it is a frivolous part of education is a sad reflection of the close-minded thinking we engage in…. Artistic and creative communities contribute billions of dollars to our economy: from multimillion-dollar Hollywood movies to simple craft fairs at a local community center.”

Moreover, the arts provide discernible advantages for such children as the young photographers from Juniper Gardens — and would provide the same benefits for children in other Kansas City communities if more programs were available. This is why Martin English, executive director of Accessible Arts, strongly opposes cutbacks in arts education. “We know from our twenty years of work as an arts and disabilities agency that through the arts, children develop critical thinking skills, take risks in a safe environment and experience successes. The challenge of creating something of value instills hope and self-confidence in children,” he says.

Lucky for us, the hope instilled by Artside Out is for children and adults alike.

Categories: A&E, Art