News & Politics

The America We Never Seem to Talk About (Photo Essay)

Brenda Ann Kenneally captures the female working poor and culture of incarceration in Troy, N.Y., where the presidential race has little resonance.
As the U.S. economy falls further into recession, politicians continue to focus on the endangered middle class while the 40 million Americans living below the poverty line have disappeared from the discussion.

Photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally, author of Money, Power, Respect, documents the permanently poor in Troy, N.Y., once a proud industrial boomtown with a rich labor history, now a city of female-headed households where big box stores and penitentiaries are the only sources of employment.

Nina Berman talks to Kenneally about her hometown of Troy, the mothers and daughters she photographs, the culture of incarceration in Troy and whether the presidential race has any resonance.

Nina Berman: You've been photographing poor, female-headed households in the mainly white, post-industrial town of Troy, New York. How is the presidential election playing out among these voters?

Ann Kenneally: I would say that the current elections are of little interest to the women that I know in Troy. Most of them said they would not vote, and those with felony convictions can't vote. One young woman thought Obama was David Paterson, New York's new African-American governor. Those with strong church connections had no opinion because they told me that their kingdom is of God and not man. A woman I met who cleans rooms at the Econolodge thought George Washington was our best president, and that's about as far as she went. As for Sarah Palin, most of the people didn't know who she was, and those who did weren't ready to vote for her simply because she was a woman.

NB: The title of your work is "Upstate Girls." Upstate, meaning it's north of New York City, but upstate has another connotation.

AK: Yes -- "Upstate" is a phrase that is well known in New York street culture, now also interchangeable with "Up North." It is a stable in hip-hop lyrics and needs no clarification among families whose involvement with the legal system is all-pervasive. The phrase is, of course, demographically, relevant. Well-heeled New Yorkers often keep vacation homes "upstate." I was clearly reminded of the two Americas a few years ago when one of my godsons from Bedford Stuyvesant was attending a function at my son's Manhattan school. He heard one of the parents talking about their summer getaway upstate, and later asked me who in that woman's family was "locked up."

NB: How was this "upstate" born?

AK: It came into being during the 1970s with the enactment of the Rockefeller drug laws, which created thousands of new convicts facing drug sentences of 10, 20, even 30 years for possession charges. The result was a prison boom upstate, which became increasingly important in towns like Troy, as manufacturing jobs were lost to globalization. So young male inmates with brown skin and low incomes were shipped from New York City to be counted as widgets in the state inventory where government money was awarded according to population numbers. And the only population gain in upstate New York over the past 10 years has been from inmates and those connected to inmates. Drug crimes have risen and the local police and sheriff have adopted a zero-tolerance policy, Giuliani-style, leading to more arrests and incarcerations, and the circle spins round and round. This has particularly impacted juveniles. There is now a special section in Albany County Jail for under 18 years old known as "baby jail."

The policy of judicial intervention has become more widely acceptable, spreading to schools -- children who are seen as behavioral problems are required to take medication. If parents do not comply, there have been cases where the parents have been charged with neglect through family court. The medication is seen as a permanent solution to an often short-term problem and can turn into another form of warehousing already disadvantaged young people. Many times the students have problems because they lack structure at home due to a working mother and an incarcerated father, so it is like they are criminalized at every turn. I met one woman who had been arrested and jailed because her teenage daughter became pregnant while "living under her mother's roof." It happened during a period when the woman was working at Wal-Mart and the daughter was home unsupervised. She was reported by a bitter ex-husband.

NB: You were in a group home when you were a teenager living in upstate New York. How does your experience from 30 years ago inform your photographs now, and what has changed since you were a teenager?

AK: I was in a group home in 1971 -- a result of a family court decision. My mother brought me before the judge asking for help in controlling me. She was divorced with three kids so she had to work. I was 6 when my mother went to work. 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. At any rate, I was the oldest so I got the worst punishment. When I went before the judge, she would not let me speak, and I remember feeling so angry -- I really had done nothing except not having any guidance. I had gotten a boyfriend that was much older than me, and I continued to see him even after my mother found out. The judge was very strict and spoke harshly to me as if he knew my situation. I refused to stay silent, somehow knowing that what I needed was a parent -- not a policeman. Anyway, I got into a lot of trouble, and I was called bad and incorrigible. And ever since that time, I have been a fierce advocate for "the bad and incorrigible" people, especially children and women. There are no bad children; this is an absurd concept, and it seemed to me then as now that the very system that labels you bad is the one that can make you bad. Women of every age seem to bear this stereotype, and society only loves an obvious victim.

Nothing has changed since I was teenager in upstate New York. In some cases, even the decor adds to the claustrophobia. I was different from my family and classmates -- I guess because I had older friends that I was told not to be with. These people saved my life. They were in that '60s, early '70s mindset of questioning authority and taught me about social hypocrisy. No one I knew thought like that, and it was liberating especially during a time when I was a prisoner, first of my family and then of the courts.

NB: Your photographs show three generations of poverty under one roof with no end to the cycle. Most of the men are in jail or have abandoned their partners and children. The women are battered in low-wage jobs, and the children, moved from apartment to shelter to youth homes, are traumatized, treated with prescription drugs for so-called learning disorders and depression. Through it all, more babies are being born. After spending five years photographing these families, what solutions can you imagine to stop the cycle?

AK: What saved me is this gift that came from the outside, almost like the big bang. I was lucky to meet some people who introduced me to radical thought. In these young women's lives, there is no outside air getting in. You buckle down and accept hard work and drudgery, and you conform. The schools, rather than trying to open their minds, are trying to just get them to learn a trade at best. Their parents have not gone through any higher education, so the way would not be paved by them.

The force that should have empowered these women was the feminist movement, but this took place among women of education and privilege and rarely reached "downward" to the sisters who could have not only benefited form the movement, but strengthened and diversified it in a way that would be valuable today in the empowerment of this permanent underclass of working female heads of household. This is the same problem that the youth movement of the '60s tried to address when the college-educated organizers tried to recruit the children of the proletariat. It was not seen as valuable to working class youth. ... It is the educated class that learns and takes seriously their role in the larger world. This is the role of education -- to expand the worldview. It is not as simple as the working-class kids did not have time to think of philosophical matters like stopping the war or fighting hypocrisy; they just did not understand this kind of impractical thinking, nor were they groomed to feel a sense of duty to such causes. Also, there was a resentment and suspicion for the educated class that still lingers today.

NB: The women and girls in your photographs look very masculine.

AK: I guess because they are tough, meaning they cannot afford to be vulnerable, as they often have to keep big male children in line and keep the place of respect in their homes. I think that it also has a lot to do with dealing with male children. I have one friend who I photographed who actually changed the timbre of her voice when she was speaking to a man on the phone. It was totally automatic. It was as if, in order to be taken seriously, she had to be male. This same woman who had two voices used to take her son to baseball games, and as she was yelling she would actually cup her crotch in a stereotypical male gesture. It is assumed that in order to get respect as a woman you have to act like a man. Also, there is some self-loathing that has been adopted in the same way as racism is internalized.

NB: Symbols of American popular culture are an obvious presence in many of your pictures and at times provide the strongest, most vibrant color in the frame. You see a child's face covered by a SpongeBob picture. You see a young girl wearing a Statue of Liberty crown. There is a poster of Britney Spears, and in one photo, a backpack with Bratz girls. To an outside viewer, these symbols feel ironic, almost mocking, like cruel jokes against the subjects of the photo. Describe the influence of popular and consumerist culture on the women and girls and also their relationship to obvious symbols of American pride and power -- the flag, the Statue of Liberty, etc.

AK: The items serve as emotional fixes and are marketed to imply an inclusion in American culture. But the reality is that the cycle of earning and consumption is a kind of slavery and makes it nearly impossible to get ahead. Consider what it does to young people on public assistance to be targeted by ad campaigns for $100-plus sneakers -- or worse, marketing so-called wholesome popular culture, acceptance of which is seen as progress and success. It's an endless covert cycle targeting low-wage workers.
Nina Berman is a photographer and author of Purple Hearts and Homeland. Photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally is the author of Money, Power, Respect.