Photos Capture Children In Poverty

Posted: January 31, 1993

Pictures of children, more than most other kinds of images today, seem to speak to us directly, without any static from our cultural baggage. Stephen Shames' 100-plus photos at Haverford College show the human face of poverty - child poverty, and what is happening to those children.

The official occasion for the Wynnewood photographer's display, organized by Haverford College, is the recent publication of Shames' book Outside the

Dream: Child Poverty in America by Aperture, in association with the Children's Defense Fund. It's an ideal show for a Quaker institution.

Shames' venture into territory relatively unexplored in recent years represents the next stage of inquiry about child poverty - photographers Jacob Riis and Lewis W. Hine having done so much on the subject more than half a century ago in a whole different set of circumstances.

One of photography's most basic and enduring traits - its ability to make visible what society would prefer left unseen - shines like a beacon here. Certainly Lewis Hine occupies a prominent place in history books about photography not as a stylist but because his searing images of children working in textile mills and coal mines prodded Congress to pass legislation outlawing child labor. Jacob Riis earlier won popular support for reform with his photos of life in the New York City slums.

The important thing about all three men is the message they convey, not their stylistic subtleties and technique. The title of Shames' show and book, Outside the Dream, is a reminder that photography has fashioned many dreams and myths that societies live by, ranging from the American frontier to messages learned through advertising or from Hollywood.

This photographer is committed to a form of social commentary that alerts us to conditions needing urgent attention. Inasmuch as these pictures by Shames, a former Inquirer staff photographer, rely upon the tradition of Hine and Riis, they are not groundbreaking work.

Instead, Shames is reviving the endangered authenticity of an older way of working and resourcefully updating it for modern use. He focuses on persons who live on the margins of society. Our awareness that every child pictured here suffers from poverty, whether obvious at first glance or not, gives each of these photos a compelling immediacy.

Using a 35mm camera, Shames crisscrossed the nation in the late 1980s and since to take these black-and-white photos with the cooperation of his subjects, becoming, for a time, a part of their lives. This is why his people are so unself-conscious.

Fueled by dissatisfaction with the single image, Shames saw to it that some of his most adventurous pictures are marked by experiments involving serial imagery and multiple arrangements of pictures. By emphasizing such devices, he aims for a psychological truth about subjects that he feels the single image cannot supply.

In one such action-packed sequence, "Bucks County, PA," 13 exposures recorded from different vantage points over a period of minutes show small children witnessing scenes of domestic violence. Many other pictures portray young children or teenagers fending for themselves playfully or in sordid conditions.

Some of these images have a power to startle and make quite an assault on our emotions. Shames' pictures are intense; he takes them with all his mind and heart. Some are deeply voyeuristic in ways that only this medium can


Shames shows us the reckless devastation being wrought upon young American lives, and he awakens in us the redemptive capacity that persons with a conscience have to take charge of their actions and repair the damage already done. The old-fashioned sincerity and naturalism of these pictures go a long way to restore some of the former power of social-documentary photography in our day.

Haverford College's Comfort Gallery at Carter Road campus exit on Old Railroad Avenue, Haverford. To Mar. 7. Thu-Sun 2-6 p.m. (896-1287).


Henry M. Muhlenberg (1711-1787) is having a modest yet informative 250th anniversary historical celebration at Berman Museum. It honors his arrival on our shores from Germany. Patriarch of the Lutheran Church in America, Muhlenberg arrived on a three-year assignment in Pennsylvania as a gospel minister and church-builder. He stayed 45 years.

Marrying the daughter of a government Indian agent, Muhlenberg settled in Trappe for many years and had 11 children. Furniture, documents, artifacts and memorabilia bring his era to life. There's also a scale model of his sandstone Colonial house, now undergoing restoration by Chadds Ford architect John Milner.

Ursinus College's Berman Museum of Art, Main St., Collegeville. To April 4. Tues-Fri 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat & Sun noon-4:30. (489-4111).

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