Kevin Riordan: Chronicling hunger in Camden on camera

Six of 10 Drexel project photographers (from left): Anisa Davis, Tiffany Floyd, Beatrize Campos, Nia Timmons, Marcella Purnell, and Tiffany Johnson.
Six of 10 Drexel project photographers (from left): Anisa Davis, Tiffany Floyd, Beatrize Campos, Nia Timmons, Marcella Purnell, and Tiffany Johnson. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 14, 2013

A young man on a sidewalk drags an empty handcart behind him.

A crowd waits outside a church food pantry on a chilly winter day.

And the shelves of a refrigerator are barren except for a pallid tub of margarine and a clear jug of water.

This is what living in Camden without enough to eat looks like - in the digital photographs 10 city women in the Drexel University project "Witnesses to Hunger" have made.

Associate professor of public health Mariana Chilton founded the project in 2008 in Philadelphia; it has since expanded to Baltimore, Boston, and Camden. People who either have experienced hunger or have seen its effects get a chance - and a camera - to document what they see.

"I took pictures on Broadway where people were giving out bread. I took pictures at food banks. I took pictures everywhere," says Anisa Davis, 44, an unemployed single mother and grandmother who lives in Fairview.

Adds Beatrize Campos, 23, who is raising her 2-year-old son, Marquise, in East Camden, "I took pictures of what needs to change."

The two women's photos are among 30 on view, along with video, through Friday at the world headquarters of the Campbell Soup Co., which provided $25,000 for the Camden effort through its $10 million Healthy Communities program in the city.

The Camden participants, who hail from a variety of neighborhoods, made 774 photos and 15 videos. Samples of this work will be exhibited this fall at Gallery Eleven One in the Cooper Grant section.

I'm impressed by these straightforward, powerful photos - no Facebook goofiness or Instagram glam. Many of the women have captured up-close-and-personal views of the city or evocative portraits of its children - the result of knowing where to look as well as looking deeply.

Meanwhile, the matter-of-fact captions ("We weren't at the point of starving") are often eloquent, suggesting how ordinary the lack of regular access to a decent meal has become for thousands of people in Camden.

"Most people don't believe that hunger really exists in America," says Chilton, director of Drexel's Center for Hunger-Free Communities.

"It's been hard to get people's attention. There's food everywhere, and there's obesity, so how could there be food insecurity?"

Nevertheless, in 2012, almost 15 percent of the U.S. population experienced a period of food insecurity - a point when their household ran out of food money.

Those statistics translate to one in five children in America, Chilton says, adding that many of these children come from working families. She blames low wages and a lack of investment in children's health, noting that poor nutrition can impair cognitive development. "We can do better," she says.

A lack of ready access to fresh, healthy food has led the federal government to label many sections of the city "food deserts."

But community gardening, culinary education, and food-truck programs are beginning to emerge. And a new supermarket, the city's first in decades, has been proposed as well.

Dave Stangis, president of the Campbell Soup Foundation, praises the work of the witnesses: "They can bring awareness and drive some action."

While Davis has never gone hungry, Campos worries that she will lose assistance for her son due to her full-time convenience-store job. But having her photographs exhibited in the stylish headquarters of a Fortune 500 global food company "feels wonderful," she says.

"It feels like I'm being heard.

"It feels," she says, "like we're being seen."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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