Photographer Interviews

Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Upstate Girls

October 16, 2012

By Meghan Ahearn

© Brenda Ann Kenneally

Kentriss, photographed by Brenda Ann Kenneally, in her North Troy neighborhood. Kenneally encouraged the subjects of her "Upstate Girls" series to make scrapbooks, which were later added to the collection of their town's historical society. To see more images from the project, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

The axiom that “history is written by the victors” is as true about societies as it is battlefields. Books often refer to the lower echelons of American society as simply the “working poor,” and rarely do the personal accounts of such people make it into print or on the historical record. Photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally has created the “layered documentary project” Upstate Girls to change that, at least in one city.

Troy, New York, was once a booming industrial town, nicknamed “Collar City” after the invention of the detachable shirt collar and a thriving textile industry. Steel and iron mills also helped it prosper. But when Kenneally traveled to Troy in 2002, she found a town, like many others in the Rust Belt, hit hard by the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs.

She was on assignment for The New York Times Magazine, which was publishing an excerpt of Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s book Random Family. Kenneally photographed a young woman featured in the book. This sparked what she calls an “eight-year exploration” of a group of teenage girls living within a two-block radius of one another in the low-income neighborhood of North Troy. “Their lives were unfolding anyway,” Kenneally explains. “I was just basically there documenting them.”

The resulting series, “Upstate Girls,” focuses on the personal lives of seven young women. Many are single mothers, who came from single-parent households. Some had lived in foster homes; others had parents, lovers or siblings in the criminal justice system. For a few, men were considered transient and unreliable. Instead, the girls formed monogamous, sometimes sexual, partnerships, raising their children together, often below the poverty line.

The Sanctuary for Independent Media, a non-profit dedicated to the media arts, is located close to the North Troy neighborhood where Kenneally’s subjects live. In 2008 Kenneally debuted “Upstate Girls” there. She recruited her subjects to help hang her photos for the exhibition and created a forum for the girls. “The idea was to have a representative from each area of their lives,” explains Kenneally. These included Planned Parenthood, Legal Aid, Children and Family Services, and a health food store.

A representative from the Rensselaer County Historical Society was also there. She brought along Victorian-era scrapbooks by former residents of Troy, all of which were created by people from upper-class families. A workshop was also held to show Kenneally’s subjects how to make their own scrapbooks. “The Historical Society agreed to put the girls’ [own] scrapbooks in their collection to add their voices to history,” Kenneally says.

But it proved difficult to get her subjects to make their scrapbooks. Kenneally notes that many of them had painful childhood memories they didn’t want to rehash. Others had very few mementos as a result of moving around a lot as children. So far, 15 scrapbooks have been made by either her subjects or the people in their extended families, which doesn’t necessarily include blood relatives.

“They are very proud of them,” Kenneally says about the young men and women who have made scrapbooks. Heather’s scrapbook contains family and childhood photos, newspaper clippings, handwritten letters and school mementos. She later made a scrapbook for her daughter, Jaeda, who she was fighting for custody of at the time. James, who had just been released from prison, made his scrapbook with photos, his own drawings and jailhouse letters from his girlfriend. Dana’s scrapbook mostly contains poems she’s written and drawings she made, with a few photos mixed in.

In 2009, The Sanctuary for Independent Media hosted a digital media workshop and invited Kenneally and a few of the scrapbookers to attend. Afterward, all of the scrapbookers wrote short essays about their lives that they read aloud and recorded. Now each scrapbooker has his or her own audio slide show on The videos show the pages of their scrapbooks with the audio of them telling their life stories. The Historical Society also has digitized copies of their scrapbooks.

Kenneally continues to encourage the young people of North Troy to make scrapbooks, not just for historical documentation but as a way to reflect on their own lives. “If they could start to see where their life veers from the path of what they had hoped it would be,” explains Kenneally, “actually see how they compromise what they want, it could be really empowering.” To that end, she’d also like to work with the Department of Probation to make scrapbooking a condition of parole.

This month she’s beginning a dual residency at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and Visual Studies Workshop, which are both located in Rochester, New York. At RIT she’ll be working with students to launch a more interactive version of that will include complete slide shows of the “Upstate Girls” series, a historical timeline, video and more, so viewers can get a better understanding of why the girls live how they live.

At Visual Studies Workshop she will be working with designers on the print version of the project, which will be a set of four 100-page books that each contain a mix of historical documents from Troy, Kenneally’s photos and various facts. Her belief is that by contrasting such things as a photo of modern girls walking down the street while pushing a baby in a stroller, with a 1912 image of girls pushing toy strollers in a baby doll parade, people will start to consider how policy and society has shaped the lives of her subjects.

“My hope is to make activists out of the very population that the books are about,” Kenneally says. “To make them feel like they have a right to think about [policy, government, etc.] … [Right now] their muscle for doing that has never been formed or it’s atrophied.”

Watch the video of Heather’s scrapbook below and click here to view the rest of the scrapbook videos:

Heather’s Scrapbook (Kayla’s Second Ex-Girlfriend) from UPSTATE on Vimeo.

Related Article:

Upstate Girls Photo Gallery
Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: See Potential
Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Through Positive Eyes
Helping Communities Speak for Themselves: Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project