|Documentary photographer Gretchen Ferber (left) and her mother celebrate the opening of “Where All Can Thrive,” a three-part exhibit of Ferber’s photographs now on view at the Harriet Tubman House, at a reception held Thursday, May 14, 2009. Above: Exercise instructor Gladys Grullon, 58, beams as she stands in front of the portrait of her included in the exhibit, which documents the people of United South End Settlements, a South End/Lower Roxbury agency that serves individuals and families, with a particular focus on aiding low-income and at-risk community members. (Sandra Larson photos)
|Portraits of Adult Basic Education students line the halls of the third floor of the Harriet Tubman House, which hosts “Where All Can Thrive,” an exhibit of Gretchen Ferber’s documentary photographs of life at the United South End Settlements. (Sandra Larson photo)
At the Harriet Tubman House, the walls have eyes. Pause to look at the dozens of faces lining the hallways and stairways of the three-floor building, and you’ll find they have voices, too.
“I could still make something of myself. I could be a proud man. I could be worthy,” says the plaque alongside the portrait of a 53-year-old man named Thomas. Thomas couldn’t fill out a food stamp application. He couldn’t read to his grandchildren. But now he’s learning.
Angela left school in 10th grade. Now she is 41. In her portrait, she sits in front of a whiteboard covered with math problems. She looks straight at the camera.
“What does this photo represent? Change. Maturity. I’ve come a long way, even since this picture,” reads Angela’s own handwriting underneath the image.
A headscarved woman faces away from the camera, but her words are there for all to see: “All I want is to be an educated woman.”
These portraits of Adult Basic Education students appear in the three-part exhibit, “Where All Can Thrive,” by documentary photographer Gretchen Ferber.
An Ohio native and 2007 graduate of Duke University, Ferber came to Boston last summer on a Lewis Hine Documentary Fellowship. Her 10-month project was to document the people of United South End Settlements (USES), a South End/Lower Roxbury agency that serves individuals and families, with a focus on low-income and at-risk community members. USES provides programs ranging from child care and preschool to adult basic education and senior services.
As a documentary photographer, Ferber says it’s her “duty and privilege” to seek out a story and tell it in a visual way.
At USES, she found three stories. In one section of the exhibit, she documents troubled adolescent girls participating in the Artful Transformations Program (ATP). A second focuses on agency employees, from facilities staff to preschool teachers to administrators. The third shows adults whose education was interrupted early in life, but who are now working toward the General Educational Development (GED) test or Adult Diploma.
Lisa Beatman, manager of USES’ Adult Basic Education programs, says the adult learners felt empowered by Ferber’s project and by the exhibition, in which their color portraits are accompanied by words from their interviews with the photographer.
“So many people who don’t read and write well feel they’re invisible,” Beatman says. “This gave them an opportunity to see their words in print.”
To capture the spirit of the adolescent girls in the ATP program, Ferber used a dramatic method. Each girl posed for three portraits, showing herself within ATP, herself outside of the program and her future self. The girls then wrote or carved messages with markers or Exacto knives right on the 4-by-5 negatives.
The result is a tryptich of large black-and-white portraits, emblazoned with the girl’s own descriptions of her three selves.
One girl’s series shows that in the ATP program, she sees herself as “awesome!” while outside she’s “quiet, introverted, socially awkward.” Her future self is both “200% more awesome!” and “rich and famous.” Another’s three selves are “Angel,” “Crazy” and “Lawyer.”
For the employee portraits, Ferber asked each staff member the same question: “What is USES to you?” and posted their responses, full of pride, next to their images.
At the exhibit’s opening reception earlier this month, well-wishers approached Ferber to congratulate, thank or hug her, and to say goodbye. Her project complete, she is leaving Boston to start her next chapter, a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Cincinnati.
Ferber says she’s been working nonstop, and it’s rewarding to finally see the fruits of her labor on display.
“It’s been difficult, but worthwhile,” she says of her project, “coming from the outside and interacting with so many different people, people different than I am.”
She says she feels she was able to cross barriers, and hopes that comes across in the portraits.
“I’ve been blessed with the simple, basic ability to listen,” she says.
Above all else, Ferber says, she wants the pictures to shine a light on the agency she has come to know.
“USES has such a range of people,” she says. “People may know them as only one type of agency, so I wanted to educate the public about all the things USES does and all the people it serves.”
Visitors are invited to view the photographs, which will hang through June 3, 2009, in public spaces at the Tubman House, located at 566 Columbus Avenue, Boston. The building’s regular hours begin at 9 a.m. and end at 7 p.m.
For more information, visit http://www.uses.org.
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