Natural Light

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Imagine a small town on the banks of a river, says photojournalist Stephen Shames in his Prospect Heights apartment on a recent, windy, wintry afternoon. Every day hundreds of babies float down the river and the people of the town swim out into the raging current to save as many as they can.

But they never stop to wonder where the babies come from. And they never head upriver to try to find out.

“Maybe the solution is to build a fence upstream” to keep the children out of the river altogether, he suggests.

During more than 30 years as a photographer documenting child prostitution, teen gangs, drug dealing, homelessness and family violence for publications like Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, Shames has seen a lot of babies swept downstream.

If capturing images from this metaphorical river of poor kids has defined his career, his frustration with simply watching from the banks has shaped his most recent work. Photojournalists are often perceived as predators who exploit their subjects, shoot their pictures and move on to the next assignment. The question of responsibility to the people they study is the central moral dilemma of this genre, agues Harvard psychology professor and Doubletake founder Robert Coles writes in his landmark study, Doing Documentary Work. With Shames’ latest project, a book proffering solutions for the problems of children living in poverty, he isn’t just taking pictures of poor families: He’s offering a glimpse of a possible path to a better future for lost families–while also showing the rest of America that our society’s hopelessness about solving poverty is misplaced.

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Shames, 51, was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father attended Harvard Law School–he claims to have been the first GI Bill baby born in Boston. After a childhood spent in Chicago and California, he began his journalism career in 1967 at the Berkeley Barb, a radical weekly and one of the country’s most notorious underground papers. He covered University of California students protesting the Vietnam War and shot photos of Black Panther Party members providing breakfast for poor kids and (literally) fighting police brutality in Oakland. At the same time, Shames worked as an activist and political organizer.

“I was first exposed to poor people in a real way in Berkeley,” Shames says. “Then, photographing the Panthers, I got exposed to urban poverty in a very radical way. This wasn’t an intellectual thing for them. They really wanted to do something.”

Shames has never drawn the line between art and activism. He has always viewed his photography as a way to contribute to the movements he believed in.

In 1992, soon after he ended a five-year stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Shames won the Kodak Crystal Eagle Award for Impact in Photojournalism for his 1991 book, Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America, published by Aperture and the Children’s Defense Fund. But instead of reveling in this triumph, Shames found himself tormented by the feelings of resignation people expressed to him upon seeing the book.

We know poor children are suffering, his admirers told him, but what can we do about it? Shames’ work prompted them to give money and support to antipoverty causes. But he also began to understand that most people had no real sense that anything could be done to permanently address the problems he had documented.

To answer the questions posed by his earlier work, Shames set out to discover what people were doing to help themselves and others, searching the country for programs that help poor children and their families live better lives. The result of this quest is Pursuing the Dream: What Helps Children and Their Families Succeed, published last fall by Aperture and the Family Resource Coalition.

The book documents the lives of participants in family support programs in more than a dozen states that try to provide parents and children with the skills and resources they need to meet a variety of goals from financial stability to parenting. They include emergency day care centers for sick children whose parents work, mentoring programs for troubled kids, economic development initiatives and parenting classes.

In the book, Shames’ pictures are accompanied by texts and captions, often in the voices of the people in the pictures.

“I used to get mad and scream…spank them without even thinking about it,” says Luz, a young father from San Antonio. Above his words is a four-picture sequence of him calmly, carefully, trying to discipline his preschool-age son.

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From September 1994 to October 1996, Shames followed the lives of the children and families in the book, becoming a friend and taking intimate pictures of the milestones in their lives. A young father gets out of prison and takes on the responsibilities of raising a family. An ex-biker marries the mother of his kids and is named Father of the Year.

Compared to the wrenching drama of his work in Outside the Dream–with its signature photograph of a 10-year-old shooting up on a Bronx rooftop–the pictures in the new book seem almost prosaic.

But the story here isn’t spot news or gripping glimpses of degradation. It’s about the slow, stubborn struggle of poor families fighting to live decent lives. Shames photographs deceptively simple moments, such as a father’s tattooed arms cradling a baby–a moment that evokes the power of parenthood chiseled into Michelangelo’s Pieta.

With grants from the Ford Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the guidance of the Family Resource Coalition (a nonprofit advocacy and technical assistance umbrella group for family support programs nationwide), Shames researched more than a hundred programs before finally visiting and photographing those covered in the book.

“I made an attempt to get out there and find out what works,” Shames says. The programs that made a lasting impression on him, he says, helped parents find “a better way to love their children.”

Using Canon and Leica cameras with fast lenses for shooting dark scenes without flash, Shames makes what he calls “casual” pictures.

“I don’t want a lot of technique in the picture,” he says. “I want people to see what’s happening in the picture. I try to be very modest, not stylized. I don’t want my pictures to look super hip.”

In one picture, a young father stretches out his hand to “touch” his child through the glass of the county jail visiting room. The pictures in one multiframe sequence capture the changing light in a young man’s eyes as he talks through a problem with a mentor.

Shames’ enthusiasm for these photos and his respect for his subjects is obvious as he discusses them, gesturing emphatically with his craftsman’s hands.

“It isn’t just about Mother Teresa and Saddam Hussein. It isn’t about angels and devils. Ordinary people can do great good and great evil,” Shames says. “I’ve seen so much evil that it’s hard for me to believe that there’s a good force in this world. I’ve seen it beaten so many times. If there is a good force in this universe, it’s working through these people.”

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On the walls of his apartment, Shames has hung pictures by Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Brazilian Mario Cravo Neto. Both photographers are steeped in the spiritual and mythical blood of their cultures, a motif that suffuses Shames’ best work.

But if their work verges on the surreal, there’s nothing mystical about the work done by the people in Shames’ book.

There’s very little that’s mystical about Shames’ own work, either. The Ford Foundation didn’t fund Shames’ project to simply produce a coffee-table testament to sensationalize poverty. “They made it very clear that they needed to communicate with the American public and policy makers about how important these programs are. The things they do really couldn’t make a dent if people don’t think it’s important.

“You don’t just want to do a photography book and have five people see it,” he adds.

Shames is now working with the Family Resource Coalition to develop a public education program based on the book. Part of the plan involves a light-weight, easy-to-assemble geodesic exhibit system that will make it possible to carry or ship the show to museums, churches and conferences without the expense or expertise required to mount a standard photographic exhibit.

The goal is to encourage the public, and especially policymakers, to rethink the entire system of family and child care services, and, ultimately, do even more.

“We can eradicate the negative effects of poverty,” he says. “I really believe.”

Manhattan-based freelancer Jake Miller’s work has included articles for the New York Times Book Review.