It’s a casual display. About a dozen picture frames containing photos with thick white borders hang on the walls to the side of the dining room and line the stairs. It’s understated. Like the actual hunger crisis, it’s there, but in the background. It’s there, but we don’t talk about it.
“Witness Hunger,” a photo exhibition right outside Pierson dining hall, is an attempt to start an important conversation. Through the lens and the voice of those who actually experience the daily struggle of feeding themselves, a new image of the life of low-income American families emerges. The exhibition is part of a nationwide project run by Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University who heads the Center for Hunger-free Communities.
Each photo on its own is nothing special. It’s obvious that there is no professional photographer clicking the shutter. However, it is in this ordinariness that the key message of this exhibit is found. These are no skilled shots with expert lighting — they are a reality many of us fail to notice. By looking at the photos, the audience is perceiving the world of one who is hungry, not only for food but also for notice.
The exhibit features three photographers: Jo-Ann Ndiaye, Kimberly Hart and Miracle Brown. They are the voice of the 30% of New Haven residents who lack food security and who were affected by Congress’s food stamp cutbacks in February. Each woman’s photos tell of her individual struggle and her attempts to combat the many hurdles in her journey toward a full stomach for herself and her family.
Ndiaye’s photos depict her particular solution: a garden plot in her backyard. One of my favorite photos is of her standing proud with a yellow squash in each hand and a verdant garden box behind her. The quotations accompanying each photo detail her daughter’s dislike for vegetables and Ndiaye’s attempts to make them appetizing by mixing them into Rice-a-Roni.
Kimberly Hart’s photos line the wall by the stairs, telling a slightly different story. The photographs depict a life dependent on food stamps — which simply aren’t enough —and the inefficiencies of the national system. One of the photos, which features her local food pantry, is captioned: “I waited for two and a half hours to get one bag of food.” Another photo is of an emergency food pantry, which, according to Hart, has now become her day-to-day pantry since her food stamps no longer cover her necessities. Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking photos of the exhibit is that of Hart’s son staring directly into the camera as he picks at his disheartening meal asking, as noted in the caption, “Really, Mom, no meat?”
In a way, it is the captions that make this exhibit so powerful. Never have I had to grow my own vegetables to supplement my meals, or wait for two and a half hours just for a bag of food. All my life, the main hurdle in having a good meal was my reluctance to make myself dinner with readily available ingredients in the pantry. Here at Yale, it’s so easy to walk into the dining hall, swipe in, grab a plate, heap on piles of food and dump the half-eaten leftovers into the nearest trashcan. However, only a few miles away in New Haven’s low-income neighborhoods, people are struggling to find even one decent meal.
As small as “Witness Hunger” is, its message is an important one that should be shared and internalized. I wouldn’t necessarily make a long trek in the rain to see the exhibit, but if you’re waiting in the tedious five-minute line to enter Pierson dining hall, it’s certainly worth a look.