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Brenda Ann Kenneally is a documentary photographer who works in depressed urban environments, often photographing their residents repeatedly over a period of many years. “Upstate Girls,” her most recent project, began in 2003 when Ms. Kenneally met a teenager named Kayla in Troy, N.Y. Kayla was fourteen and pregnant and asked Ms. Kenneally if she wanted to photograph her child’s delivery.
Ms. Kenneally said yes. She then spent the next ten years taking pictures of Kayla, her children, her lovers, and the loose network of family that connected them. “If there is any art in the images that I have been making in Troy, New York over the past ten years it is that they have heart,” Ms. Kenneally wrote in a grant application to fund “Upstate Girls.” “The undeniable need for this heart forces us all into a shared emotional narrative and that is the place where I want my work to live.”
Last week, Slate’s Jordan G. Teicher featured nine of the photographs from “Upstate Girls” in a post initially titled “Life Below the Poverty Line, Troy, N.Y…” Ms. Kenneally’s forceful images drew a lot of attention. More than eighteen thousand people shared the Slate article on Facebook and hundreds commented on Slate’s Facebook page. Another 387 commented on the original post. Tweets criticized the subjects and the photographer.
The comments were harsh. Many expressed outraged that Kayla would smoke while holding her baby. (This photograph, singled out with especially virulent criticism, has since been taken down at Ms. Kenneally’s request.) Others remarked that poor people couldn’t afford to waste their money on cigarettes, that the houses pictured were filthy and the occupants slovenly, and that the food visible in some shots was unhealthy. Commenters wondered how poor families had money to buy their children video games. There were accusations about welfare checks and snide remarks about contraception.
Some accused Ms. Kenneally of exploiting her subjects. “Is the photographer implying that poor people are too stupid to make intelligent choices?” asked one commenter. Others defended Ms. Kenneally and her subjects. “Have you no sense of anything but resentment and jealousy? Troy has created/allowed a culture of deprivation to fester. Troy is a part of the USA. Have a little charity in your thinking if not in your comments,” one reader wrote. Other commenters pointed to the insidious power of addiction. Some were turned off by the judgmental comments: “If your takeaway from this is the smoking, you’re part of the problem. Middle class white people never cease to amaze me with their monumental ignorance,” read one comment.
Slate’s editor-in-chief, Julia Turner, told Op-Talk that some of the harshest backlash took the publication by surprise: “Commenters had varied responses to the piece. Some felt, as our photo blog editors did, that the photographs offered a compelling portrait of life in straitened circumstances. Others posted ad hominem comments about some of Kenneally’s subjects. That was something we didn’t anticipate.”
Ms. Kenneally told Op-Talk that she was devastated by the response. After the Slate article’s publication, she said, she was soon fielding calls from Kayla and others. She was concerned for her subjects: young, vulnerable people who were reading comments on Facebook calling them “trash.” She added that social media had changed these subjects’ lives: “These guys live on Facebook like they used to live on their front porch.”
When Struggling Families Spark Internet Rage (via NYT)
Brenda Ann Kenneally takes photographs, but to call her a photographer isn’t quite accurate. She prefers the term “digital folk artist,” and when you hear how she interacts with her subjects—families living below the poverty line in Troy, New York—and tells their stories, it seems an apt description. Kenneally doesn’t simply create media, she curates it: She collects family photo albums, school and medical records, letters from prison, scrapbooks, and even screenshots from Facebook. Since she began her project, “Upstate Girls,” more than 10 years ago, she’s amassed thousands of photos, several terabytes of video, and scores of other documents. “If you’re doing documentary, you need to be the foremost authority on whatever you’re doing. I don’t know anything about almost everything; there are so many things to know now. But I know some stuff about these couple places, and you have to want to share that,” she said. “The pictures are just a way to remind me about what I’ve learned. No longer do I care about having pictures in a frame on the wall.”
Life Below the Poverty Line in Troy, New York (via Slate)