Rochester is the only U.S. city of its size where more than half of children live in poverty. Local social documentary photographer Arleen Thaler shows us some of the faces behind the statistic we tend to overlook.
As a photographer I have been asked many times, “Why do you photograph the homeless, those in poverty, and those who are suffering?”
Some time ago I would have answered, “Because it lessens my suffering.” It did, but only for so long. The images that I captured had meaning for me, but did not tell a story. The gratuitous photo of a homeless man with no name served no one but myself. This epiphany hit me like a bolt of lightning. Though I believe my photos were visually appealing, they only told part of the story, a very small part. I began questioning my intention with every photo I captured.
It was then that I changed my idea of what makes a photograph good and realized it goes beyond the moment I capture the image. Actually, it begins the moment I connect with my subject. I set out on a journey to connect intimately with the people I photograph. I spent several months sleeping at the House of Mercy in 2012. I stepped into this world looking for answers, not only on how to tell the whole story, but also for me personally. I started to wonder why these people trusted me. It was then that C.W. Earlsly, known there as the “Man of the House” said to me: “It is because you break bread with them, Arleen.”
I cannot believe documentary photographers get into photographing the human condition because it’s fun. I believe it is some sort of suffering they are dealing with that leads them on this path. My suffering has been a gift, one of compassion and understanding that I was fortunate enough to be aware of.
While photographing at the Northwest Community Outreach Supper Program, I met a young mother, her 3-year-old daughter and her grandmother. Childhood poverty sat there staring at me from across the table. I know their names; I can tell you their story, but it is my hope that these images stir you into action. As I like to say, “Nothing changes if nothing changes.”
A young boy plays in his grandmother’s yard, unaware that behind the stair’s slanted board is the hiding place for drugs being sold by the local set on the corner.
Another child poses happily for the camera without realizing he is caught in the cycle of poverty.
Renee plays amidst the growing garbage pile. Even with her father working, the family cannot afford proper garbage disposal.
A young boy hangs from a fence that separates his neighborhood playground from an abandoned house that plays host to drug dealers, prostitutes and other questionable characters.
“I was born in Russia and was adopted when I was 3. I was a troubled child, and was more to handle than my mom could deal with so she put me in foster care when I was 13. My mom was a single parent and worked too much to have a healthy relationship with me and thought foster care and group homes could give me the care and stability she couldn’t. Foster care and group homes gave all they could and asked my mom if she would take me back when I was 16 be- cause they did all they could for me. She said that she didn’t want to deal with me anymore so they sent me to a homeless shelter. I got social security and was able to pay for places to crash on couches. I’m currently 20 with no GED or high school diploma trying to figure out what I’m going to do and how I’m going to make it. I still talk to my mom but she doesn’t want much to do with me.”
THERE ARE WAYS TO HELP
The city of Rochester is attempting to find ways to deliver assistance that makes a lasting difference, notably through a three-year $1.9 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. Rochester was one of 12 cities selected last December as part of the foundation’s Innovation Teams Program.
But, the funds don’t go to poor families or existing programs. Instead, the grant goes towards salaries of newly hired in-house consultants who will then organize into teams to research and develop new approaches to the problem of poverty. Meanwhile, the number of children living in poverty is rising. Half of the area’s children are living below the poverty line, according to 2013 data. To find out how you can help Rochester families now, visit the websites listed below. The Open Door Mission, for example, offers people a way to give as little as $2.05 to pay for one meal, or $61.50 to pay for 30 meals.