Photoville, Brooklyn’s innovative showcase of photography through the use of moving containers as exhibiting rooms, has come and gone but the photography projects shown there are still alive and well. A particular project that has stayed with me even a few weeks after the final weekend of Photoville, goes by the name of “Upstate Girls” by Brenda Ann Kenneally.
Since 2004, Kenneally has dedicated her life to documenting and exploring class inequity in America, and more specifically in Troy, New York. Troy is known as a prototype of the industrialization in America. As the majority of the manufacturing businesses that once provided Troy with the means to flourish move overseas, many lose jobs, incarceration rates soar, and an increasing number of households are left in the hands of single mothers. The current median annual income for a family of three living in Troy is $16,796.
For five years, Kenneally closely followed and documented the lives of seven women living in Troy. Keneally’s artist statement claims, “Poverty is an emotional, rather than purely physical, state.” This fact is brought to life in this project where the viewer is given the opportunity to observe all aspects of these womens’ lives, the ups and the downs.
Like all of the other Photoville exhibits, Keneally’s work was presented in a shipping container. However, this exhibit was vastly different than those surrounding it. There is stuff everywhere. All available wall space is covered with photographs. It honestly feels very unorganized and messy, as if a young child had curated the show. This is obviously done purposefully given the fact that the titles and descriptions paired with each photograph are hand written in a black ballpoint pen on masking tape and taped straight on to the prints. Loose corners of the unframed eight and a half by eleven prints are also held down by masking tape. At first glance, the exhibit itself seems very amateur. However, once you look over the subject matter – the messiness of the houses, the many children running around, and the piles of junk food on the dinner tables – you realize that this style of exhibiting seamlessly transitions into the actual photographs. In addition to this sea of images, Kenneally provides her audience with a large projected video of everyday life with these women of Troy, a couple more smaller screens with similar videos and headphones with sounds that bring the images to life. How the artist fit all of this into one shipping container is incredible. Even Kenneally herself, who was there struggling with the projector, was messy in her ways, which only added to the seemingly appropriate and even authentic ambiance of this little world the artist had created in the shipping container.
What really intrigued me and brought the project even more so into the realm of reality was that some of Kenneally’s subjects were in fact there, visiting the exhibit themselves. Note this project is not a flattering representation of these people’s lives. It is extremely honest and in fact more often than not very unflattering. If I myself was in these photographs I would most likely not want to look at them in front of the general public. However, I was glad they were there. Photography, more often than not, has the ability to create distance between its subjects and its viewers. Though in this case, as I observed a photograph of a bleached-blond girl sitting with her shirtless boyfriend on a dingy couch, this same bleached blonde girl stood beside me also enjoying the exhibit. Any feeling of distance with the subject was shattered.
These people were real!