Click. Oddly enough, image making has become something of a lost—or at least diluted—art. For every iconic image, we now have tens of thousands of snaps of wedding receptions and sudsy toddlers in bathtubs. Click. And why not, right? Your phone holds more pix than a trunk load of 35 mm cameras ever could.
An image's power to spur social change has been on display for several months in the North Carolina Collection Gallery of UNC-Chapel Hill's Wilson Library. It's called The Poor Among Us: Photography of Poverty in North Carolina, and in addition to a wealth of photographs, co-curators Stephen Fletcher and Biff Hollingsworth have prepared contact prints and culled pamphlets, newspapers, screenplays and other archival materials from the collection, framed thoroughly with text.
This exhibition tells the story of Gov. Terry Sanford's North Carolina Fund, a private nonprofit founded in 1963 in order to "create the possible" and address the key issues and causes of poverty in a way that government either could or would not. But The Poor Among Us is really the story of photojournalist Billy E. Barnes, the news director for the fund's public information department. Other striking photographs from independent photographer Jerome Friar, and from Don Sturkey's quarter-century tenure as chief photographer for the Charlotte Observer, are far from an afterthought, but the arc of Barnes' work through the fund is the compelling narrative here.
Barnes' fascinating combination of activism and art emanates from every image. The whole idea of images of poverty is problematic—a picture can be as exploitative as it is informative. One display of 1966 photographs of Durham's "Buzzard's Roost," a Pettigrew Street corner where even today day laborers loiter some mornings to find work, places the original contact prints over an array of North Carolina Fund publications, advertisements and announcements that use those images. But any air of exploitation dissipates upon reading about Barnes' Basic Communication Project, through which underprivileged communities were provided with direct access to media tools and distribution channels.
One wishes, however, that there could have been more images from Friar's collection and Sturkey's album from the1950–1990 era, when his newspaperman's knack for finding the immediacy in an image is apparent. One image of a white shirt and pants on a hanger dangling from a pin that also holds a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. to a wall is both chilling and holy. Sturkey's full-frame prints, made from his negatives for this exhibition, provide a special opportunity to see work that was often cropped and reduced to fit newspaper layouts.
Friar's photographs are the most recent in the exhibition. With more of a witness's eye, he captures the exhaustion and outrage in the postures and faces of protesters after the 1991 fire at a Hamlet chicken processing plant that killed 25 workers—still the worst industrial disaster in North Carolina history. Friar's work, shot in Hamlet and Woodland, provides a historical connection back to some of Barnes' images of the same area of the state.
Be sure to take 28 minutes to watch Barnes' groundbreaking 1968 documentary, No Handouts for Mrs. Hedgepeth, a portrait of a Durham domestic and her family, and also an example of the more aggressive, existential turn documentaries took as the optimism of the '60s slid into the disillusioned defiance of the '70s.
The camera follows Mrs. Hedgepeth through her day, moving between her house and that of the upper-middle-class family she serves. In a climactic sequence, she contemplatively sips a glass of milk at her kitchen table while sound bites from presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson deliver familiar rhetoric in an echoing voice-over. Then narrator Benjamin Mast's taut voice cuts in: "The promising voices die, and you are left again with what you have."
Through both hopefulness and disillusionment, there is the reality of one's situation: One must live each day. You'll walk out of this exhibition wanting to do something. Click. And think.