Stark Images of Child Poverty

Stephen Shames's photographs underscore the urgent need for jobs, education, and housing

PHOTOJOURNALIST Stephen Shames spent close to eight years capturing on film what has become a national disgrace: child poverty in America.

His photographs underscore often-reported statistics: About 12 million children - 1 in every 5 - in this country live in poverty. One-third of all poor people are children, and the number is growing.

Seventy-five of Shames's photographs are currently on view at the International Center of Photography in New York. While the subject is grim, Shames's treatment of children in poverty doesn't aim for mere shock, pity, or sympathy. Rather he presents these children and their surroundings in an ``in-your-face'' fashion, leaving you no choice but to look, think, and possibly be provoked to action.

Shames's chronicling - from 1984 to 1992 - grew out of a suggestion by Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund. The project resulted in a book - ``Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America'' - copublished by the Children's Defense Fund and Aperture. In January, sponsors sent the book to every member of Congress, to governors of all 50 states, and to the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Shames's collection has won several awards, including the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism, and awards from World Press and World Hunger Year.

In the exhibition, Shames's black-and-white photographs loom large, featuring the children who live in welfare hotels, sleep on the street, deal drugs, raise other children, and try to hope for a better future. A few photos are new additions (not found in the book) dealing with homicide in Houston.

``Child poverty is very, very complicated because it intersects with race, family issues, morality, economy, political issues, ideas we have about certain groups.... What I really want to do is bring some of those subtleties out to people,'' Shames said during a phone interview.

Through Shames's lens the viewer gains not only a glimpse of the children but hints of their everyday circumstances. The captions lend poignancy.

In Ventura, Calif., Kevin, an 11-year-old homeless boy, is asleep in the front seat of a car while his 13-year-old brother sleeps in the back seat.

In Orange County, Calif. - one of the nation's richest counties - we see children of Mexican immigrants playing in a slum not far from Disneyland.

Through these photos we're also made aware of children whose difficult lives seem to be a product of others' actions.

In Chicago, we meet Lafayette, a 10-year-old who lives in the Henry Horned housing project. ``He saw a girl shot right here in the hallway. Lafayette says he often sleeps under his bed to avoid stray bullets,'' the caption reads.

In Brooklyn, another caption reads, ``Anthony and his brother watch television at Brooklyn Arms Hotel. They often miss school because their bathroom's plumbing is broken and they are embarrassed to attend without showering. The hotel owner has not fixed the plumbing for the past two months even though he receives $1,200 a month in rent from the city.''

Though these ``documents'' may be dark in theme, not all are dire. In El Paso, Texas, three brothers study by kerosene lamp in the hope of attending college someday. Several photos show families that foster love and courage despite their lack of possessions.

A couple named Juan and Sylvia moved to a suburban lot in El Paso in order to get away from inner-city violence. They have helped form a group to lobby for water and sewage lines in their community. And in New York, a small boy named Max gives a kiss to his baby sister Vanessa, whom he often looks after.

``We can't just sit back and say everything will take care of itself,'' Shames says. ``Because of societal neglect and in many cases parental neglect, children aren't getting the basic minimal things, including emotional and intellectual skills. We have to say, `Are we going to attempt to give these things to these kids or not?' ''

* `Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America,' Photographs by Stephen Shames is at the International Center of Photography, New York, through Sept. 26.

A smaller exhibit with the same name - designed for children to view with their parents - is at the Fresno Metropolitan Museum, Fresno, Calif. from Sept. 17 through Nov. 27.

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