Upstate Girls

Dana at six months pregnant with her first child--she was going to keep the baby at that point and was living in her room at her father's house. This photo was taken at a neighboring friend's house as there was friction between her and her father over the pregnancy, the fact that she was not married, and the baby's father was in jail. Photo by Brenda Ann Kenneally

Dana at six months pregnant with her first child–she was going to keep the baby at that point and was living in her room at her father’s house. This photo was taken at a neighboring friend’s house as there was friction between her and her father over the pregnancy, the fact that she was not married, and the baby’s father was in jail. Photo by Brenda Ann Kenneally

As a journalist and activist I have dedicated my life to exploring the how and why of class inequity in America. I am concerned with the internalized social messages that will live on for generations after our economic and social policies catch up with the reality of living on the bottom rung of America’s upwardly mobile society. My project explores the way that money is but a symptom of self-worth and a means by which humans separate from each other. Poverty is an emotional rather than physical state with layers of marginalization to cement those who live under them into their place. The economic crisis as it is called has done some to take the moral sting out of being poor, though the conversation remains centered on economic rather than social stimulus relief. Thus indicating that the crux of the crisis is for those that are recently without money rather than Americans whose ongoing struggles left them unfazed by the headlines.


The nature of editorial assignments that cover issues of poverty or social inequity is to simplify the problem so that the audience can placate its conscience by identifying a concrete solution. Newspapers and magazines have been the financial mainstay for this kind of investigation and often end their support where the story really begins – before the root of some universal truth can be found.

For the past five years I have been reporting on poverty in the United States as a consequence of the nation’s blind ambition and lust for growth. Troy, N.Y., is the city that I have become obsessed with.

Labor historians have argued that Troy was likely the prototype for the industrialization of America. As the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, Troy held most of the country’s initial wealth and hence became a symbol of the American Ideology. Troy is now a post-industrial city, among the country’s poorest. Similar to the way in which the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith used the city of Pittsburgh, Pa., as a metaphor for the struggle beneath America’s optimism in the 1950s, Troy serves as a testament to a grand chapter in our country’s social contract that is in critical need of revision.

The city of 44,000 sits on the banks of the Hudson River, 140 miles north of New York City. During the Civil War, Troy’s steel processing plants made millions of dollars manufacturing horseshoes and factored in the victory for the North. In that same period, Hannah Lord Montague invented the detachable shirt collar and spawned an industry that became the cornerstone of the regional economy, employing over 8,000 operatives.

The proud aspirations of America’s beginning are seen in stark contrast to Troy’s present social conditions. In 2007, 16.3 percent of all children in Troy were living in households headed by a single female; of these 16 reported income below the U.S. poverty line. The median income for a family of three is $16,796. Since 1990, the only increase in population and revenue in this part of upstate New York has come via an intrastate migration from the south (primarily the boroughs of New York City). The pattern is attributed to the growing number of prisoners housed in the region’s major correctional complexes.

The challenges that families in Troy have faced since the 1960s when industry started to shift to the American South, before ultimately leaving the country, are the same roadblocks that now confront the entire nation. The working class has always been more vulnerable than its insulated counterparts a few rungs above them on the class ladder. Their tenuous grasp on the American Dream has been exacerbated by a gambit of well-intended fiscal and social policies that view economic insecurity as a moral issue rather than a homegrown by-product of our national ambitions. The consequence has been the perpetuation of the very circumstances that these policies set out to abate. Increased legal assertion in the lives of the poor and its resulting shifts in family roles, the implausibility of upward mobility, poor health, substandard nutrition, and an absence of access to higher education are the challenges that Troy, as the original “Every City,” faces in our post-industrial America.

My goal in an open-ended project is to document the entire city as it stands – a symbol of American’s idealistic past and a gauge of our commitment to the need for economic social change that shaped the victory of the 44th president, Barack Obama.


When I am in Troy, I have a room at the YWCA. This is a kind of shelter for abused women and a place where low-income females live until they can find apartments. My wages as a photojournalist qualify me for this housing that is meant to be temporary, though some women have been there 20 years. Immediately after getting the key to my room I felt that I too would never leave and I needed to call my son so he could reassure me that he would care for me in my old age.

With so many single female heads of household, and so many below the poverty line, the landscape of Trojan Women is this: low-wage service jobs, long, bleak, grey winters, jail visits to sons and babies’ daddies, sparkly thong underwear from Walmart, Sponge Bob, coffee, cigarettes, kids, and lovemaking – lots of lovemaking.

I became aware early in my reporting on Troy of the role that love plays in the lives of poor women, and it is far more complicated than for those women with a wider array of distractions. The need for love is concrete and desperate yet the lovers are often disposable.

The women at the YWCA haunt me and have driven me to look further into love as a life force straddling the energy of birth and death, destruction and redemption for women with limited physical resources. For the women that I have grown to know and love here at the YWCA and in my reporting in Troy, love is akin to travel – an escape from the grind of a future with limited promise or a weekend getaway from a life of toil already misspent. The drama of a tumultuous relationship can preoccupy a girl indefinitely with unrealized ambitions.

Women at the YWCA tend to have lost their loves – either through death or abandonment or attrition. To these women, romance is the best medicine if only in small doses of unrealized fantasy. One women there who was in her 60s and had been badly burned asked me to photograph her nude so she could send it to her boyfriend down south – she had been waiting years for him to “get her” so they could be married.

Another woman, a widow, had been dating on the Internet and fell in love with a man who sent her a handsome photo of himself, along with a story about how he was a minister in Africa and wanted her to send him money for a plane ticket home so they could be together.

Being outside of love leaves a woman for whom belonging is a concrete asset vulnerable – it diminishes her self-worth and can manifest in physical and emotional homelessness. Love here is not a choice but a rescue mission. Young girls become entwined with young men who have limited options due to jail or unemployment or lack of self-esteem and they forfeit a painful future of possible disappointment in service to their men. Female desire has to crystallize in the bedroom, and the quest for love is an avocation handed down through generations and perpetuated in fairy tales, pink plastic Barbies, bride dolls and Britney Spears.

This is a discussion rarely had when speaking about teen pregnancy or single motherhood or the feminization of poverty. Such lofty social terms ignore the very core of emotional footing that is a woman’s presence in the world. Love among the poor becomes legislated and is judged as a moral issue with the focus on the burden to the public from an ensuing pregnancy rather than examining the disadvantage a woman may have been trying to leverage. Insurance companies in America conduct studies about the life expectancy of their customers and it is a fact that married people live longer and healthier.

The YWCA is only five stories high and women rarely walk the stairs, as it exhausts them. The vibrancy that love brings awakens in women a renewed attention to self and caring for her self, if only to attract or preserve it for another. This vibrancy leads to better health and productivity.

Love – new love – has been scientifically proven to stimulate the endorphins, similar to a cocaine high – complete with feelings of well-being and euphoria. I have also seen love entrap due to religion or a sense of duty. Poor girls have fewer financial options, so they make choices that will leave them the least at-risk for physical resources like food and housing. To say that love factors in social inequity is a radical thought – too abstract for public policy. Liberal social programs distribute love through bread and cheese.

It is my belief that love may be the most political force we know. I have photographed many women in the city of Troy, N.Y., and have recorded audio about what love means to them. The result is a print exhibition and audio mix that is played as an ambient soundtrack that accompanies this traveling show.

The women were free to write poems or stories to accompany their prints and I collected love letters and MySpace pages all on the topic of romantic love as a force for social equity. The women posing and revealing themselves at their most bold and beautiful challenge the shame they are made to feel about their lives and loves.

Along with more traditional portraiture I include photojournalistic works as well. I believe that being in a room with images full of emotion and longing, hearing the stories flow with music not connected to any single image, creates a moving and visceral experience and fosters new depths of connection between the women in my pictures and all who see them. In short, I hope I have made beautiful works of women who need to feel beautiful as they bare their beautiful souls, so we can all see their beauty and generate our love.

My approach has been the search for universal emotional content and my hope has been to not be constrained by the boundaries of journalism or art.

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