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City Springs Elementary School first grader Jahmal Harrison, and his mother Tameka Harrison, wait inside the school before their 40 minute bus ride to their shelter in North Baltimore Wednesday, February 29, 2012. Tameka, who can’t work due to a facial injury, volunteers at her son’s school, where poverty is the norm. Ninety-six percent of the approximately 650 student body qualifies for free lunches. Tameka and Jahmal, who suffers from lead poisoning, used to live in one of the close-by housing projects, but have been homeless for the last two months. They’re currently staying at Sarah’s Hope Shelter in West Baltimore. Tameka thought she was going to be moving into an apartment Friday, under the auspices that both the security deposit and the first month’s rent would be waived, but the latter was not. So, they’re staying in the shelter a little while longer.
Two Fridays ago I got a call from Charlie Borst at Education Week. He asked me to help illustrate a story about the effects of poverty on students’ educational success. A tough task, for sure, but I was up for it.
For those of you who don’t know, Education Week is the paper of record for U.S. public schools, grades k-12. Their audience is smart and small — educators, public school administrators, education policy makers. So, the written stories can be pretty data and research heavy. The photo department, headed by Charlie and Nicole Fruge understand that photography can humanize an information rich story.
So, being tasked with finding a student who was not only poor, but willing to be photographed and who’s parents were willing for them to be photographed as well, in less than a week was a bit daunting for sure.
Going through this experience made me ask for help. I got some amazing advice from talented documentary photographers Kathleen Flynn about contacting non-profits, and Monica Lopossay, too. Both helped me think about how I should approach subjects, too. But I also really learned the benefit of culling contacts from past assignments. The principal at City Springs Elementary School, Rhonda Richetta, was a wonderful host the last time I shot there (for another Education Week story). I just dropped in, unexpected, and asked for her help finding a subject. And
Miss Richetta knew the perfect parent and student — Tameka and Jahmal Harrison.
Willing and open subjects are gifts from the photo gods! She didn’t put a hand up to me to stop shooting when she disciplined her son for hitting (back) another student and she was willing to let me photograph her and Jahmal at their shelter. Unfortunately, the management at Sarah’s Hope wouldn’t give me access.
I also learned that when a willing subject is presented to you, it’s up to you to maintain that trust.
Sometimes you just have to listen to your subject’s story with an open mind. Let them rationalize their past and present, and try to understand and empathize where they’re coming from. After all, we’ve all made mistakes. and we’ve all been in a position to learn from them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to simplify the complexities of why people — families — become homeless.
All I’m saying is, if a subjects wants to open up and tell you their story, let them, and know when to put the camera down. Who knows? They might tell you more, and you might be privy to the intimate realities of their world. It’s an amazing thing to be trusted and let in.
Keep Scrolling for a view of how the photos played (beautifully!) in the Education Week layout, and for some outtakes.
In case I couldn’t find a willing subject, I made photos of the area surrounding City Springs Middle/Elementary School. This was obviously “plan B” but I think it helped give context to where the students lived.
I love this photo.
Principal Rhonda Richetta.