What I Keep: Photographs of the New Face of Homelessness and Poverty, Susan Mullally
A New Amazing Book of Photographs: WHAT I KEEP, Susan Mullally, Baylor University Press, 2010, with an introduction by elin o'Hara slavick
You can pre-order this book now, due out at the end of summer. Here is the introduction I wrote for the book:
What I Keep So You Can See Me
Susan Mullally's unforgettable color photographs of people who gather together in their "Church under the Bridge of I-35" make visible something we usually choose not to see. There is a young woman holding a photograph of her sweet baby girl with whom she cannot live because she does not have a place to live. There is a picture of an African-American woman holding her Junior High School diploma. This is the first time the woman has ever shown it to anyone. There is an unemployed carpenter who collects any stuffed animal that he finds so he can give them to the children he encounters during his homeless days. Most of us do not relate to these people because we have jobs, homes, families with whom we live and a comfortable routine. If we practice a faith with others, we probably worship in a temperature controlled interior environment that provides shelter, warmth and a refreshing respite from the natural elements and a welcome and deliberate pause in our daily patterns of behavior, usually with people who fall into similar ethnic, financial and political categories. According to their website, the Church under the Bridge is “an ordinary church made holy by His presence – black, white, brown, rich and poor, educated in the streets and the university, all worshipping the living God, who makes us one.”
What we keep exceeds Mullally's frame and is thus left out. In these pictures, she is not interested in the glut of consumption, our wasteful and luxurious ways, and our individual success stories and privileged positions from which we pass judgment or remain passive. Mullally is interested in how people survive, how they form communities, how they hold onto one single thing that becomes a symbol of pride, identity, generosity, memory and faith. While I may not relate to these people, I feel as if I know more about each of them because of Mullally's images. A Vietnam Veteran's Army hat places a homeless man in a very specific history and culture, in a certain political situation – one of a broken health care system that fails even for those who almost died “serving their country”, a capitalist system that relies on the suffering of some for the pleasure and profit of others.
Working in the tradition of August Sander, Lewis Hine, Diane Arbus and Rineke Dykstra, Mullally knows she is swimming in troubled water. Susan Sontag asks the challenging question in Regarding the Pain of Others, ""What does it mean to protest suffering, as distinct from acknowledging it?" I am not sure these photographs answer this question, but acknowledging a problem is at the very least a beginning to the solution. Mullally's photographs move us. They create a spark of recognition, of empathy. None of us can act compassionately without empathy. Unlike the aforementioned photographers, Mullally is not making an archive of archetypes; she is not aligned with a political party or working towards the passage of a specific law (although perhaps she should be); she does not consider her subjects as freaks. She is making photographs as a good citizen, as a concerned woman, as someone searching for community in the small and strange town of Waco, Texas, where Mullally teaches at Baylor University. Mullally respects her subjects, many of whose lives are constantly disrupted by serious challenges such as homelessness, incarceration, drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness and poverty. Mullally simply asks each person what he or she keeps and why it is valued and she makes a color photograph of them holding that object of subjective value.
Mullally participates in the Sunday service regularly. She started going when she first moved to Waco for her teaching job at Baylor. She wanted to get to know some people so she volunteered to take the black and white photographs of members for the Church’s cherished annual directory. While performing her service for the Church, Mullally had the idea for What I Keep and was able to gather willing participants for the project. It is noteworthy that this project grew organically and sincerely out of Mullally’s own spiritual and community practice and not out of a superficial art world desire. I appreciate being introduced to these anti-heroes, these survivors, my fellow citizens. We all need to be reminded, even if we are acutely aware through personal experience, of other people's struggle and difficult situations - often as a result of other people's selfish and greedy ways of life. I look in their eyes and recognize that in these bankrupt and corrupt times of recession and foreclosures, their eyes could one day be our eyes – open and pleading, reconciled and tired, searching and resolved. This is all so close to home. Indeed, many of us drive over such bridges every day – on our way to work or the grocery store. Little do we know that there are people gathering underneath us to join in worship. It is hard to imagine worshipping in such a state (both in terms of personal desperation and need and in terms of actual geographical location) but they do it and seemingly with joy. I once heard Toni Morrison speak about how if we do not take care of the poor and oppressed, they will rise up and eat us. It is easier for me to imagine people gathering together to plot their cannibalistic feast, but that is the difference between Susan Mullally's visionary spirit and mine, perhaps even yours.
It is dangerous to address faith in one's art. Religion, or ideology, is at the root of every war. Some of us are atheists, agnostics, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim and Baptist. Some of just don't care about religion one way or another. Somehow, even though Mullally's subjects all belong to the same church, the pictures do not feel religious, even the one of a woman holding out a crucifix. She could be holding a baby or crutch, a broom or an instrument and I suppose a crucifix can be any of these things. This church under the bridge feels more like an umbrella organization for people who need each other, who may have a whole lot to give or to receive. I wonder if they each take turns at being the minister or reverend or priest. Mullally could have just as easily chosen to photograph a group of similar people at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, but she chose to find them in a place that they choose to go, a place where there is hope and a sense of community.
While the church is non-denominational, it is Christian. Having been raised in an unusual politically active Catholic family, I have always imagined the true Christian to be someone who feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, loves their enemy and gives to the poor. In the United States of America, as an inherent part of their religious beliefs, interpretations and practices, some “Christians” hate homosexuals, believe in forcing women to give birth to unwanted babies, support endless war that we all know kills more civilians than soldiers or terrorists, work towards wealth and give little to charity. Of course there are other Christians who attempt to mirror Jesus, the humble socialist carpenter, but the loudest ones are the ones we hear. I have no idea what the people in Mullally's photographs believe in politically, if they can vote and if they do, for whom? It doesn't really matter. What matters is that they are people living in our country and we should care about them. If we don't, who will? If we don't care about them how can we care about each other or ourselves? Our denial and greed lead us, involuntarily or not, to inequality, injustice and suffering, whether or not we acknowledge it. I am waiting to be devoured, but not by these people who stare out at me from Mullally's pictures. We will devour ourselves.