Risking Life and Lens

This week in North Philly Notes, Helen M. Stummer, author of Risking Life and Lens, provides her artist statement and a few images from her exhibit at the New Jersey Historical Society that runs through June 24.  

This exhibit is a small selection from the large body of work I have created over the past four decades as a social documentary photographer and visual sociologist.

I began my career as a painter. I loved to paint, but when I enrolled in a class at the International Center of Photography in my early thirties only planning to learn how to use my camera better, I became involved photographing the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was what the New York Times then called one of the meanest areas in America. “If you don’t take a risk you will never do anything meaningful” became my mantra.

Stummer_fig3.26

Woman Carrying Water Home, Guatemala, 1997

France Under bridge Paris copy

Man Living Under Bridge, Paris, France, 2000

E 6th St NYC Manicure Shirley & her twins 11_22_1978 file 104 fr#31e104

Giving Mommy a Manicure, 1978

Maine Ellen Rocking Jimmy Maine. 1989 jpg

Ellen Rocking Jimmy, 1989

stummer-helen_James on Stairwell

James on the Stairs at 322, 1994

Driven out by drug dealers after four years, I went on to photograph mostly in the Central Ward of Newark, and became involved with the struggles of local residents addressing injustice in education, health, housing and police practices. I befriended several families, seeing many of their children grow up and have children of their own. During those years, I also worked in rural Maine, Guatemala, and France with a large organization, Homeworkers Organized for More Employment (H.O.M.E), in the fight against poverty, homelessness and hopelessness.

Risking Life and Lens_smRisking Life and Lens takes the reader/viewer through many of my own experiences and challenges, as well as the everyday stories that residents shared with me. I was there to learn and to witness without judging, striving to capture the innate qualities of dignity, spirit and elegance of people living amidst suffering and devastation. Their grief and anger at the world’s injustice could not erase their grace and humanity, and that left a mark on my camera and my heart.

Nelson Mandela said that poverty is man-made and therefore can be unmade. It makes no more sense to think that someone living in a so-called “bad neighborhood” is a bad person than to assume someone who lives in a “good neighborhood” is a good person. We see so much change happening in suddenly “desirable” urban environments, but a civilized society, if it is to survive, has to offer opportunity that includes and fulfills the needs of all people.

Helen M. Stummer

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