A voice for the voiceless

“Mattresses in Wedge” by Breanna, one of the formerly homeless participants of the PhotoVoice exhibit currently up at Nazareth’s Lorette Wilmot Library. PHOTO PROVIDED


“Exposed: Rochester’s Hidden Victims of Homelessness PhotoVoice Exhibit”
Through May 31
Lorette Wilmot Library, Nazareth College, 4245 East Ave.
389-2457, naz.edu
Mon-Thu 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri 8 a.m.-6 p.m., Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Closed on Memorial Day)

In our general dissatisfaction with the particulars in our lives, there are countless things we take for granted. Among these are the very basic protections and comforts: a safe place to rest, regular showers, clean clothing and a safe place to keep it, and the resource to feed ourselves when we hunger. But perhaps the greatest thing we take for granted is our voice — the fact that should we ask for help, we will be heard and likely aided. We have that security. For many people li

ving on the streets of Rochester and beyond, this is not the case. The current exhibit at Nazareth College seeks to provide a voice for the voiceless and a window for the ignorant into the homeless experience in Rochester.

The invisibles and the cast aside of Rochester tread cold and indifferent waters as we, the relatively secure, shy away from those closer to the abyss. “Exposed: Rochester’s Hidden Victims of Homelessness PhotoVoice Exhibit,” held in the Lorette Wilmot Library lobby at Nazareth College, offers a public platform for the arcane side of Rochester, as experienced by former homeless individuals, who interpret their experiences through a series of photographs and writings that accompany each image. The exhibition “allows members of the homeless community to share their daily living conditions and struggles while stimulating new ideas and solutions to the epidemic of homelessness,” per the press release.

In the autumn of 2011, Leanne Charlesworth, associate professor of social work at Nazareth, initiated the PhotoVoice Exhibition in an effort to bring awareness to homelessness in Rochester, while simultaneously building the participants’ photography and writing skills. Cameras for the project were donated by Kodak and distributed with the help of Homeless Services Network to individuals who have accessed housing support provided by the Center for Youth, Mercy Community Services, Sojourner House, Wilson Commencement Park, and YWCA.

The project “intends to combat common misconceptions about and bring awareness to the issue of homelessness in Rochester,” says Charlesworth in a provided statement. A majority of the respondents to the call for participants were youths ranging from ages 10 to 20, and mothers leading their struggling families. “The individuals involved in the project are actually representative of the homeless community in Rochester,” says Charlesworth. “It is a common public perception to think of homeless persons as older individuals struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues. In fact, the growing homeless segments in Rochester and the nation are youth and mothers with children. The PhotoVoice project represents these two sectors, and hopefully changes the view of who we are talking about.”

The imagery in the show isn’t what you might expect, and ranges widely from self portraits, to snapshots of children, to images of where participants used to huddle, to sites of aid, and seemingly unrelated scenes that are interpreted for those of us who are blind to this strata of life. In “Mattresses in Wedge,” an image taken by 12-year-old Breanna in 2011, our castoffs become dugouts for the desperate. Two mattresses lean on their sides between a chain-link fence and garbage containers; Breanna used to stay here when she needed a place to rest and hide. “This is my house,” she wrote in the accompanying statement. “I use it as a house when it is dark outside so no one sees me. So my house is someone’s old garbage left for me to live my life outside. I hide underneath my worn out mattress and your old junk. This is my house. This is my castle.”

Ironically, the bulk of the image is taken up by a sign posted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which reads “New York State Superfund Project.” Breanna has since been aided by Sojourner House and lives in an apartment with her mother, and they hope to buy a house this year.

Nearly every image taken by mothers of their children show smiles. In the writings the women express grief over their children suffering, but explain that they wanted to use the exhibit as an opportunity to record their kids smiling and happy.

Abandoned houses are also a repeating theme, and though they are seen as a problem by many officials and residents in Rochester, they are often both the seeming last hope and a hellish dwelling for the homeless. In many cases, where we simply see a broken-down structure, the PhotoVoice participants see more. “Tragic House” by Jothan, age 10, features red-painted siding and boarded-up windows, and is accompanied by the following: “I am sad because this looks like a great house and something tragic happened to it.”

In addition to gaining voices, participants learned new skills. Paul Porell, assistant professor in art, instructed the participants on the use of the digital cameras. Virginia Skinner-Linnenberg, professor of English, gave the participants tips on creative writing for their narrative pieces. Deborah LaBelle, associate professor and director of the information technology program, constructed a website for the project. Additionally, Director of Community Service Adam Lewandowski helped to organize transportation and childcare for the participants during their workshop sessions.

The participants hope that the exhibit will empower Rochesterians to become more open minded, to appreciate their lives, and to consider contributing to advocacy efforts after visiting the exhibit. While everyone is looking out for himself in America, we move further from communities of trust and support, and lose sight of each other. We are a culture that throws away all that doesn’t immediately serve us, including people. We more or less refuse to bear witness to the suffering of others, and we grow small with the fear we have placed on the wrong people. We’ve been duped to believe there is a shortage of anything, when the problem is distribution, and the solution is awareness and activated compassion.

Note that the show will also be displayed at the City Hall Link Gallery in November in recognition of National Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Month.


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