Prior to establishing the Freedom Trails Gallery at Valley Frame Works, Ani Rivera co-directed a series of photography workshops and exhibition of photographs taken by young adults aging out of the foster care system. The workshop and exhibit was a project of Friends of Children, Inc., an advocacy organization located in Northampton, MA and now relocating to Hadley, MA. The article below, published in the Gazette on June 28, 2011, covers our workshops and the exhibition “Seeing their Voices ™, which will be traveling to the State Capital in Boston this winter, 2012. A selection of photographs from the exhibit are currently on view at the Freedom Trails Gallery, with proceeds from sales of photographs taken by the participating foster children going directly to Friends of Children, Inc.
By Suzanne Wilson (Staff Writer)
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Photographer Ani Gonzale-Rivera helps install a collection of photographs by four foster children for “Seeing Their Voices: Growing Up In Foster Care”, a multimedia exhibit at the ETTA Art Gallery in Amherst. The top two works are by B.M.P. and the bottom three are by Devonne McLaughlin.
AMHERST – The photograph shows some cute and cuddly stuffed animals – a mama dog and her puppies – sitting on a bed. It was taken by a 17-year-old teenager, a young man who calls himself BMP, who has lived in six foster homes and three residential programs since the age of 9. A few months ago, BMP was given a camera as part of a project to encourage kids in the foster care system in western Massachusetts to capture images of their lives.
The project was spearheaded by Friends of Children Inc., a Northampton-based child advocacy agency. Ani Rivera, a photojournalist who lives in Leverett, met with the fledgling photographers every week for six weeks, offering guidance and teaching them how to use the cameras. One week, he asked them to take pictures of something meaningful in their lives. That was when BMP came back with the photo of his stuffed animals.
This is what life is like in foster care, the photo says: When your parents don’t care about you, when people drift in and out of your life, and when you get bounced from school to school and from town to town, you learn to look elsewhere for constancy and comfort.
‘Seeing Their Voices’
The idea of presenting their experiences to the general public came from Jane Lyons, executive director of Friends of Children Inc. “We can speak to people about foster care,” she said last week at the gallery as she and several others were hanging the show.And administrators like Lyons do just that – all the time. They decry the budget cuts and the pitiful $17 per day allotment – and less for younger children – that the state provides per child. Friends of Children now operates on about $160,000 a year, $100,000 less than it used to have, Lyons said.
They point to the rising number of children in foster care across Massachusetts – there are about 9,800 children in placements, Lyons said, up from about 8,500 in recent years. They hammer away at the corrosive effects of treating children, many of whom are victims of abuse and neglect, as if they’re traveling salesmen, as Lyons puts it, who are often shunted from temporary home to temporary home.
But the numbers and the abstractions have only a fleeting effect, she said. Lyons said she wanted to let the kids themselves tell their stories, even though that’s not easily done in a system that protectively shields foster children from public view. “Seeing Their Voices” pulls that veil partway back. While the photographers’ full names aren’t disclosed, we see their faces in the self-portraits they’ve taken and we read their words.
“Dad chose the wrong person over me,” says BMP in the biographical statement that accompanies his photos. “My mother doesn’t give a crap.” He does have a caring aunt who “takes me home places and takes me home and has stayed in touch with me since I was a little kid.” He has been living in his current foster home for two years, he said, making it one of his longest placements.
Jose, 17, says the instability and uncertainty of the foster care system has turned him into someone who doesn’t try to make friends anymore. “One day you have best friends in school,” he says in his the artist’s statement. “Then the next day you’re torn apart.”
Despite the many moves and upheavals he’s been through, Stephen, 18, strikes a note of appreciation for those who have tried to help him. “Foster parents may not be your real parents,” he says, “but they just might be the closest thing.”