Shutter to Think
Camden women shoot a picture of poverty
By Cynthia Marone
Beatrize Campos knows exactly what she wants her life to be like for her and her 2-year-old son, Marquise. The hard part is getting there.
The 24-year-old single mother dreams of earning her surgical technologist certification. She knows the classes, loans and homework would mean more strain in her struggle to make ends meet, which includes a 40-hour-a-week convenience-store job and use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
“Welfare helps me and the check is just enough, but with school my job would become part-time. I’m pretty much by myself, with no help. To think about it is one thing, but to do it is scary,” says Campos.
Her fears about the future and the circumstances of her today do not stop her from having hope that tomorrow will be brighter. It’s an attitude she transfers to her hometown, where she is participating in the Witnesses to Hunger photo exhibit, a research and advocacy project spearheaded by Drexel University School of Public Health.
Campos is one of 10 women who, as part of the project, picked up a camera to show what it is like to live and raise children in Camden. The exhibit uses the women’s photos to illustrate how poverty and hunger shapes their lives.
“Good can come out of Camden,” says Campos, who has three photos on display. “I wanted to tell people more about Camden, the truth about it, not just things they see from the outside. That’s why I chose to photograph an abandoned house that was a nice color. It’s still a pretty house, but boarded up and old.”
Campos never considered herself a photographer, much less a chronicler of a nationwide epidemic. Her belief that things will get better and her desire to let people know there is a kernel of good in the hardest shell of circumstance drove her to join the project. Her firsthand account is her expertise, says project founder Mariana Chilton, PhD.
“Witnesses to Hunger started out as research. I wanted to learn more from the women, what they needed to change. The women who were struggling could articulate this much better than I ever could,” says Chilton, a Drexel associate professor of public health. “It’s still about research, but it’s become a strong advocacy tool. The act of speaking out is important.”
Campos and fellow project photographer Marcella Purnell both wanted to spotlight the good in Camden, along with ways to help it. Both pointed their cameras at the beauty of their families and the ugliness of dilapidated housing. Each had their reasons for picking their subjects, and each approached the camera differently.
“I took a while to take pictures. I had nothing in mind – I just started taking pictures as they struck me,” says Campos. “Camden is a part of me. I just want to make it better. Someone needed to be heard. With the project, I feel I was heard.”
Campos used a photo of an abandoned home to show the multidimensional nature of Camden, but Purnell turned her lens to housing to illustrate an issue that has come up repeatedly in her own life. Currently, she wants to move out of the home she shares with her daughter and four granddaughters, but she says there seems to be more crumbling dwellings than affordable, available ones.
“If no one lives in it, help out people like me. Fix it up and go low income,” says the mother of four. “I was homeless at one time. It’s not easy out there. You wake up, wash up in a gas station bathroom. Now I see others doing it.”
Camden is the fourth stop for Witnesses to Hunger. When it began in 2008, Philadelphia was the launching pad. Forty-two women participated at that time, and the project expanded to Boston and Baltimore.
“Camden and Philadelphia are sister cities. The exposure of poverty in Camden is similar to Philadelphia’s,” says Chilton, who is also the director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities. “The women call it a sisterhood. Theirs is a story with a sense of family.”
The story begins with the photos taken by the women for the exhibit. They spend three weeks with a digital camera provided by the project and then help whittle the shots down to the ones that will be displayed. By using photos, Chilton was able to bypass the common fears of public speaking or organizing thoughts on paper. The attitudes that emerge during the selection process and ensuing interview are sometimes just as revealing as the photos themselves, she says.
“Some photos are very intimate, some come out not so great. Some women are probably taking hundreds, others five. Some are so shy, so undervalued by society, they say ‘Why does it matter?’” says Chilton. “We ask why they took the pictures, what do you want to say? I didn’t want to put pressure on them to write or speak, but a photo gets to the emotion.”
The artwork produced is as diverse as the attitudes among the women. Some took photos of their grandchildren or children, others shot the neighborhoods they look at every day or passing images that moved them. All illustrate what life is like in Camden – the beauty, the hope and the frustration, says Chilton. After wading through close to 1,200 photos for the Camden exhibit, Chilton still remembers those that haunt her.
“One is by a woman, Kathy, who is in a shelter. She’s been looking for a place to live, and has a list of places she’s called in her search. All throughout her list are sayings like ‘no answer.’ One place she spoke to, a person said, ‘no apartment.’ Where’s the hope in that? She’s trying and has evidence. It’s that pounding, grinding nature of poverty,” Chilton says.
Another is of a little girl in pigtails at a playground, taken by Purnell. Purnell’s caption reads: “If you’re hungry, you got an attitude, right? So it affects the kids too. They learn different things, like they need to know they can only have one sandwich because the other kids got to have one. It affects them a lot. Sometimes they have bad days, and sometimes they have good days. They’re not rotten kids. They’re trying to learn.”
“The child’s face is very angelic,” Chilton says. “This is what Marcella wanted to say, from her perspective: There is hope through the kids. All around, you see negatives. You try, but you never get anywhere. The photo is a juxtaposition – I need to be hopeful.”
Finding women to go behind the lens was a unique, but not complicated, process. Flyers were put up at places like childcare centers. Purnell heard about the exhibit through a friend, while Campos spotted a posting at the Southern New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative’s Camden office. The 10 women in the exhibit are from all walks of life – grandmothers, mothers, college graduates and working women. Their children range in age from infancy to adulthood. Some have lived in shelters; some are looking for permanent homes while others share space with family.
Though the project name is Witnesses to Hunger, other issues jumped from the pictures and commentaries, like violence and safety, homelessness and housing, and dealing with the welfare system.
“In those recorded conversations, things would come out. They feel ashamed and feel they are looked down upon, because they are hungry or homeless,” says Chilton. “What comes out of it is they say, ‘I want to change things for me, for all of the women.’ They are speaking up for other women who may be afraid to talk.”
Food insecurity – the difficulty in getting healthy, regular meals due to a lack of resources – is a main component of the exhibit. The women shed light on the issue with photos of empty refrigerators and food pantry visits. In areas served by the South Jersey Food Bank (Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem counties), 160,000 households experience food insecurity.
Purnell constantly works to balance a food budget so she, her daughter and her daughter’s girls get what they need and want in their diets.
“It’s not easy to fill the refrigerator,” says the 53-year-old. “The children come first.” This means avoiding impulse buys and sticking to a tight list. It’s the same method Campos employs to fill her pantry.
“I shop so it lasts a month by buying in bulk. We eat through it over the month,” she says. “I don’t buy junk food. It’s a waste of money. It’s grains that last. I’ll buy things to fill my son up, like oatmeal, rather than junk food where he will be hungry in a few hours. I try to give him what he needs instead of what he wants.”
The need for healthy eating played a role in bringing Witnesses to Hunger to Camden. The Campbell Soup Company funded the project through its Healthy Communities program, which is working to reduce childhood hunger and obesity.
Now others will be able to see with their own eyes what 10 women from Camden live every day and they will, Purnell hopes, be unable to look away without experiencing profound change.
The viewing public may be moved to action, but the feelings of empowerment for the women can’t be overlooked either, says Chilton. “I think of the women as agents of change.”
Selections from the exhibit “Witnesses to Hunger”
The Search Continues
I spent three and a half months in a shelter with my two children, and then I got my apartment. The crazy thing about it is that I still have to do house searches and job searches to qualify for welfare, even though I have a job and an apartment. My caseworker says that I have to look for something I can afford, I guess because $850 is too much. I don’t know where I’m going to find a two bedroom for a lower price. All the housing that’s low-income is like a year waiting list or more. I’m on the list through Section 8 and I went over there today, and they told me that I might not get called for three years, maybe five.
– Photo and voice by Kathy, Camden
Just because he is in Camden do not mean a child won’t come out being happy. Just because this is not the American dream or the American-looking family, that does not mean a child won’t come up all right. I want that image to change, because there’s some good stuff in Camden. It’s not all bad stuff. Kids do grow up happy in Camden. I did. I came out fine.
– Photo and voice by Beatrize, Camden
Welcome to Camden
That’s right next to a new apartment building. Why is it that they could build that apartment to be so beautiful but they can’t fix a house this small next to it? That house is probably like, what, two bedrooms? It says Department of Public Works on the door. Welcome to Camden.
– Photo and voice by Beatrize, Camden
End of the Line
That’s the end of the line at the church giving out food. That’s a lot of people and that’s not all of them. People go out there at eight o’clock in the morning and set their cart in line for their spot. As the day goes on, you’ve got more people coming.
– Photo and voice by Marcella, Camden
Paying Double at the Corner Store
If they had a grocery store here in North Camden I think it would be a lot better. If you don’t have a car you spend fourteen dollars in a cab, seven dollars up and seven dollars back, to go food shopping. If you run out of something, you have to go to the corner store. I think if they could provide us with a grocery store here people’s food stash might last a lot more because they’re not paying almost double at the corner store.
– Photo and voice by Marcella, Camden
It Affects the Kids
If you’re hungry, you got an attitude, right? So it affects the kids too. They learn different things, like they need to know that they can only have one sandwich because the other kids got to have one. It affects them a lot. Sometimes they have bad days and sometimes they have good days. They’re not rotten kids. They’re trying to learn.
– Photo and voice by Marcella, Camden