"'Upstate Girl' finds voice in photography"

Date published: 02/12/2009
Publication: Troy Record

‘Upstate Girl’ finds voice in photography

By Bob Goepfert The Record

Brenda Ann Kenneally has an addictive personality. That addiction has produced “Upstate Girls: What Became of the Collar City,” which opens Saturday at the Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Ave. in Lansingburgh. It is a photographic study of six young women living in North Troy. The images are stark, real and disturbing as they chronicle the lives of the powerless and disenfranchised. Though fraught with social, political and economic implications, the images are visually hypnotizing as they capture the lives of innocence lost.

Kenneally refers to herself as New York Times Magazine’s “photographer of choice when it comes to capturing images of kids living in poverty.” Her first assignment for the magazine was in 2003 when she was asked to supply pictures for a series written by her friend Adrian Nicole Leblanc titled “Random Family.” It was a work about neglected, unsupervised kids living on the streets of New York City. Her work was so successful, in 2006, the Times sent her to New Orleans to portray the plight of displaced children trying to survive after Katrina. An entire issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to that work.

Following up on some of the kids from “Random Family” piece, she learned that several of the subjects moved to Troy. She came here to visit them in 2004 and started a five year project. However, the project became very personal for Kenneally.

She explains the story of her subjects in “Upstate Girls” is almost biographical. “I walked into their houses and it was as if my life kicked back 30 years. The inside had the same decor as the house I grew up in. Even the view from the window looked the same as I had on Second Avenue. Their lives were very much like the life I led as a kid.”

Kenneally admits she was a troubled teenager. Raised in Albany by a single mother, she was labeled “incorrigible” by Albany County Family Court. Since her mother worked, Kenneally said she was responsible for raising her brother and sister from the time she was 12 until she ran away at 16.

“What I needed was a parent, not a policeman,” she writes of that time. That was 1977 when her addictions were drugs and alcohol.

She spent the next several years wandering between Florida and New York City with drugs and booze as her constant companions. Fortunately, she found a mentor who saw something in her and she encouraged her to enroll in a photography course at the University of Miami.

“I was inspired by the work of Diane Arbus. Maybe I saw myself as one of the freaks she loved to photograph. Our approach to photography had a lot in common. She was driven because she came from a privileged life and couldn’t connect with the world. I came from poverty and couldn’t connect with the world I wanted.

“I knew there was more to life. I just didn’t know where more was. Somehow I always understood that education was power. I knew if I could get an education, not only would it validate me as a person, but it would permit me to say ‘screw you’ to everyone else.”

She graduated from the University of Miami in 1991 and continued her education at New York University. She is now investigating Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as a place to earn her Ph. D. Along the way she became a respected, award winning photojournalist and a mother.

“Upstate Girls” is not the end of the project. “I am not one of those photographers who take pictures, put them in a gallery and not see the people again. This exhibit is as much for my girls as it is anything else. Amazingly, their houses are right across the street from the Sanctuary so they are active in hanging the pictures and being involved with the show. “

For them, this will be something tangible to show for our five year experience. Their images will be hung in a public place and their lives will, hopefully, be validated. It’s a transitional time for them and for me.”

Kenneally is now ready to move on. “I’m a 49-year old woman. It’s time to stop reporting and to make stuff,” she says. That stuff is a documentary film, a book and a multi-media web series that will conceptualize the lives of the six girls who are the subjects of “Upstate Girls.”

But that is for the future. For the present, the exhibit “Upstate Girls” will be on display at the Sanctuary for Independent Media through May.

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