Monday, April 14, 2003
The subjects tell their stories, and the exhibit's creator doesn't impose his views.
By JEFFREY DAY
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Since the 1980s, Michael Nye has been taking photos around the world of refugees in the Middle East, Kurds in Iraq and natives of the Arctic.
It was his way to tell a story.
For his exhibit "Children of Children: Portraits and Stories of Teenage Parents," he taught himself to be a sound artist as well.
In the exhibition, currently traveling the U.S., the black-and-white photographs are displayed in pairs. A headset below waits for visitors to listen to the subjects' stories in two- to four-minute bites. The sound tells stories the images hint at about who the images capture, how they got there and what role teen pregnancy played in their lives.
"I believe in storytelling," said Nye, who lives in San Antonio, where he made most of the photographs and recorded the voices in "Children." "I loved the stories as much as the images."
The project began in 1996, when a colleague asked Nye to photograph some teen mothers. He worked on it for three years, an investment of time and effort he never expected to make.
"I didn't think I was the right person to do it," said Nye, 54. "But the first ones I did, I was so haunted by the stories."
Poverty and abuse
The first stories were of poverty and abuse. By the time he finished, he had stories and photos of young mothers, young fathers, fathers of teenage parents, men and women born to young parents. The subjects range in age from 12 to 100. They are black, white, brown, red, mostly middle class and poor, but a few are well-to-do.
The stories they tell are sometimes dramatic, such as the story of the woman who lost her unborn twins when she threw herself down some stairs; the girl whose mother went to prison when the girl was 4 months old; the girl who was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend.
"She's a good mother," says the mother of the girl, who had a baby at 13.
A father puts part of the blame for his daughter's getting pregnant on television: "They see it. They try it."
A young woman with three children said: "I was so in love. Emotionally immature. Drunk all the time."
Nye says he was simply the conduit for the stories, that he didn't have an agenda.
"I tried to tell the story from each person's point of view whether I agreed with it or not," he said. "This is someone talking to the viewer and listener in their own voice, not someone preaching to them.
"This was a bus stop kind of thing," he said where the door was open for anyone who wanted to take part and friends told friends. "Anyone who wanted to be in this was in it. There's a randomness which is also universal at the same time."
It was a time-consuming undertaking.
"Each person was in front of the camera for some time," said Nye, who works with a large-format camera that makes 8-by-10-inch negatives. "I'd get them to stand there for as long as they'd let me.
"Some of the poses were things they were doing during the interview. I didn't tell them to do anything, I just waited."
He interviewed each person for 30 minutes to a couple of hours, then edited in his studio at home.
His wife, Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet with 15 books and a Guggenheim Fellowship to her credit, helped him with the recordings. Finding the right words, the right phrases that tell the real story, but also sound good is important, he said.
"How can you stay true to what someone is saying in this time frame? You can lose the story very easily."
He's currently working on a similar project about people with mental illness, many of them homeless. It has become even more consuming than "Children of Children."
"I spend too much time on it -- three or four times interviewing, three or four times shooting," he said. "But I love the process of the work."
He began "Children ..." without any financial or institutional backing until the Witte Museum in San Antonio signed on. Some agencies that deal with teen pregnancy expressed interest but then shied away when they saw that the photos and audio weren't going to say, "Having a baby when you're a kid is wrong."
Later, groups with various social and political leanings snapped it up.
The exhibit takes the stories beyond museums and galleries. It has been at schools, churches, malls and an abandoned building.
"I always think it's going to end," he said. "But now it's booked for the next year. I never through that would happen because it talks about sex."
In Columbia, the S.C. Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy was the primary agency behind bringing the exhibit to town. The director of the agency is Suzan Boyd, a member of the museum board, and she, in turn, brought it to the museum.
"We didn't have any problems with it at all," said Gabrielle Bargerstock, director of grants and program development for the campaign. "It's a chance to generate public awareness about an issue that it extremely complex."
(The campaign has also provided money for groups of young people to visit the museum, including providing transportation there.)
That's the way Nye sees it as well.
"One thing I learned is there are so many issues involved with this," he said. "It's about sex but about all kind of issues of becoming an adult -- marriage, jobs, money.
"This storytelling that takes place goes beyond political dialogues."
XOnline: View more images from the exhibit at www.thebrogan.org/children/