A young woman named Dana Aftab wanders through a cramped hallway, gazing at blank white walls that will soon be covered with pictures. Dozens of photographs lie on the floor.
“Brenda, how can I help you?” Aftab asks.
Without hesitation, Brenda Ann Kenneally replies, “Hang up your photos.”
“Is there any specific order you want?” Aftab asks.
“However you want,” Kenneally tells her. “It’s your life.”
Aftab takes a plastic sleeve filled with photographs and begins tacking them to the wall.
An Albany native who now lives in Brooklyn, Kenneally has spent the past five years photographing Aftab, her sisters and mother and other women who live in Troy. She has taken hundreds of pictures of birthday parties and births and homecomings from prison.
“Upstate Girls,” an exhibit featuring many of these photographs, will open Saturday in the Troy-based Sanctuary for Independent Media’s Underground Gallery; an opening reception will be held at 6 p.m. on Feb. 21.
Taken in its entirety, “Upstate Girls” is a portrait of working-class poverty told from a woman’s perspective. Most of the women depicted in the photos work low-wage jobs, did not complete high school and first became parents as teenagers. Last week, Kenneally and a small crew of helpers spent hours papering the walls with these photographs, many of which were shot in the Sanctuary’s North Troy neighborhood.
Kenneally, 49, is an award-winning freelance photographer whose work has appeared in Rolling Stone and The New York Times Magazine, Ms. magazine and other publications.
Her “Upstate Girls” project evolved from a New York Times Magazine piece — called “When the Man of the House Is In the Big House” — that brought Kenneally to Troy in 2002 and introduced her to her subjects. She said it isn’t unusual for her to become involved in the lives of the people she photographs and to spend years documenting their lives.
“Once you get involved with people, it’s hard to let go,” Kenneally said. “When [Aftab] was having a baby I was going through hell — I was afraid I was going to miss it. There are certain things you just know you need to be there for because they’re such big events.”
Aftab, 21, first met Kenneally about five years ago, shortly after her older sister went to jail for setting a fire in a vacant home. She said she likes the photographs but they remind her of when she was “young and stupid” and sometimes make her sad.
“I know they tell a story,” she said. “I look back and see how much I’ve changed and how every decision I make reflects who I am.”
There are photographs that show Aftab when she was pregnant and photographs that show her hanging out with friends and family.
“I know pretty much everyone in these photographs,” said Aftab, who now lives in Waterford with her husband and takes care of her three-month-old daughter, Kylynne. She studied at Hudson Valley Community College before Kylynne was born and said she hopes to return and pursue ophthalmology. Kenneally suggested that Kylynne’s birth represented Aftab’s rebirth, and Aftab agreed.
“I have a new lifestyle,” Aftab said, as Kylynne gurgled in a baby carrier.
Two years ago, she gave birth to a daughter who was adopted by members of her church.
“That was definitely an eye-opener for me,” she said. “You only have one life.”
Nodding at the photographs, she said, “I’m lucky to be able to look at my life like this.”
When Kenneally first started taking pictures of her, “it was a little awkward,” Aftab said. “Now, I consider her family.”
Kenneally’s own childhood was far from easy.
Her mother was divorced, with three children to support.
“I was 6 when my mother went to work,” Kenneally said in an interview with the alternative liberal news Web site AlterNet. “By the time I was 12, I had been taking care of myself and my younger brother and sister, so I was not about to be told what to do.”
Kenneally’s mother brought her to family court to ask for help controlling her; when Kenneally reacted angrily to this development, the judge called her bad and incorrigible and sent her to a group home. Between 1970 and 1978, she was a ward of New York’s Division for Youth and lived in juvenile shelters and group homes for adolescent deemed uncontrollable.
“And ever since that time, I have been a fierce advocate for the ‘bad and incorrigible’ people, especially children and women,” Kenneally said in the interview.
Kenneally moved to Florida in 1977 and spent about a decade working temporary jobs and taking classes at Broward Community College. Eventually, she was accepted into the photojournalism department at the University of Miami. While still a student, Kenneally began photographing Miami’s homeless population, and she received her first assignment from the Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine while she was still enrolled in school.
Kenneally moved to Brooklyn in 1996 to enroll in the graduate program in studio art at New York University. Soon after, she began photographing the women from her neighborhood; in September 2001, the New York Times Magazine ran excerpts of the project, called “Drugs in the Blood,” and the project culminated in a book called “Money, Power, Respect: Pictures of My Neighborhood.”
Learning through art
“Upstate Girls” exemplifies what the Sanctuary for Independent Media is all about — using media and technology to give voice to the local community and using art to spur social change, said Branda Miller, a professor of media art at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the Sanctuary’s founders.
Miller said Kenneally’s photos “give us an intimate view that goes beyond statistics, violence in the streets, prison and parenthood. By really listening to the subjects of the photos, by opening ourselves up to learn from these lives, that is at the core of how change can happen.”
Kenneally, Miller said, “broke the bonds of poverty herself to become internationally recognized as a photographer. It’s an inspiring story, and that’s how we knew she belonged here.”
On April 2, the Sanctuary for Independent Media will host “A Conversation About Upstate Girls,” during which some of the women depicted in the photographs will talk about their lives and lead small group workshops. The hope, Kenneally said, is that people who attend this event will gain a deeper understanding of the challenges that the people who live in economically impoverished communities face.
“This is an event where young girls will tell people what they need and what they are feeling, rather than have all the experts tell them what they need,” Miller said.