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Matinee: 'Helen M. Stummer, Social Documentary Photographer' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

30 September 2017

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 207th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Helen M. Stummer, Social Documentary Photographer.

Produced by PBS's State of the Arts program, this 7:24 piece explores the life of Helen Stummer, who spent 30 years photographing life in one of Newark's toughest neighborhoods.

She tells the story herself, for the most part, on the occasion of the publication of her book Risking Life and Lens: A Photographic Memoir, edited by Micah Kleit.

"The big moment came, I still remember it like now, that I looked out at the scene and it was one burned out building after another, cars bumper to bumper on this one-way street and police cars with sirens and people filling the sidewalks. And people were laughing, arguing, yelling. And children were playing in theses rubber filled blocks. And I said, "Wow, this is chaotic. This really something."

She had returned to college in her thirties in 1977 to study art. Photography was going to help with her painting, she thought. Until that big moment came.

The pictures of the chaos she found in New York's Lower East Side were self portraits, metaphors for her own growing up.

This chaos, she only now realizes, was "connected with my whole remembrance of growing up." Her gut, she explains, always wanted to document her growing up. Her brain had no idea what was going on, it just went along.

The pictures of the chaos she found in New York's Lower East Side were self portraits, metaphors for her own growing up.

Which wasn't happy.

Emotionally deprived as a child, she tells us, she recognized in these economically deprived communities a poverty like the one she endured growing up. She had become pregnant at the age of 15 and was twice divorced before returning to school.

"When I see someone caring for something -- I don't care if it's a cat or a dog -- I respond. I love it. You know. I long for that."

She took a wrong turn one day driving to the city and discovered a whole new landscape of deprivation in Newark.

She earned a masters degree in visual sociology, as she continued her portraits of poverty in Newark, bring food and clothing with her and leaving her prints as gifts. And she advocating for them, making phone calls on their behalf.

She sums her approach up nicely on her Web site:

At times I am sure my works are self-portraits; but then I also think that they are protests against stereotypes that picture poor people living like "Queens" of "high on the hog." At times I see them as exposès of some of the myths of poverty that say being poor is synonymous with being a criminal or undeserving; sometimes they reflect my reaction to those endless comments about bad neighborhoods being equivalent to bad people. Theses reasons shift in priority, but are all basically true. Protest I think, is always at the crux of my work, protest against injustice.

As she talks, we see her pictures of poverty. But we see a lot more, too. We see children lost in play. And we see the caring she spoke about. We see the streets, the rooms, the hallways of these lives. In black and white.

Building 322 on Irving Turner Blvd. to be specific. She was warned not to go up there because it was infested with crime. Prostitution, drugs, muggings. She was scared. But she kept at it "because I'm persistent."

She'd drive home angry because some people had so little and others so much. And there was no bridge between nothing and everything. People with everything don't appreciate how much they have, she says.

She's tried to bridge those two worlds, she says. she's always trying to find an answer.

"We need to become aware of different worlds, of different places, of different environments," Stummer says at the end. "To just share, for goodness sakes."

But that isn't all.

"And do something," she adds. "Shake up these politicians, don't be afraid of them." she enthuses. "We have a lot of power and we need to use it."

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