International Festival of Photojournalism

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03 / 09 / 2009

Brenda Ann Kenneally

No sooner had she got in Perpignan than Brenda Ann Kenneally was swamped with things to do. Both excited to be here and tired from the trip, she answered the interview, sharing her experience, talking about Troy, her hometown, and her project “Upstate Girls”.

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Brenda Ann Kenneally, Canon Female Photojournalist Award, presented by the French Association of Female Journalists (AFJ - Association des Femmes Journalistes), in partnership with Le Figaro Magazine, is an American photographer who explores in depth the emotional and psychological cycle of poverty as seen by women.

Brenda first started photographing the families of her neighborhood, in Brooklyn, New York. The black and white portraits of young couples tearing each other apart, of people under drug influence, of young pregnant women or mothers with young children, display violent and painful lives. Those photos were published in Money power respect: pictures of my neighborhood.

Then, in 2003, she was assigned to take pictures to illustrate the book (Random Family) by one of her friends and colleague, Adrian Nicole Leblanc. "This project is not a calculated thing. I was there, a few blocks to the neighborhood where I had grown up, and I met one girl who introduced me to another... I became deeply interested in those women who wer eliving the life I would have lived, had I not hitchhiked to Florida." Brenda Ann Kenneally has devoted five years to study the "upstate girls", women surviving in the misery of Troy, New York, that used to be the prototype for the industrialization of America and, as a result, one of the country's wealthiest cities during the late 1800s. The "Upstate Girls" project is an attempt to unravel the complex causes and effects of America's diehard dream. Troy, "the most important city during the Industrial Revolution", forged the American ideology until America's working class remained essentially unchanged since the heyday of the Industrial Revolution, despite sweeping technological advances. As the U.S. economy falls further into recession, politicians continue to focus on the endangered middle class forgetting to discuss the 40 million Americans who live below the poverty line.

Brenda takes us to a chaotic world, where children are left alone and lack structure at home due to a working mother and an incarcerated father. They kill time till mothers drag in from work. The photographs clearly show the situation: most of the men are in jail or have abandoned their wives and children. Women cannot afford to be vulnerable; they look masculine, like in that picture where a woman threatens her kids with a belt. It is also assumed that in order to be attractive and get respect as a woman you have to act like a man. We can see symbols of American popular culture: a child's face covered by a Sponge Bob picture, a young girl wearing a Statue of Liberty crown, a poster of Britney Spears, bottles of Mountain Dew. Those items can feel ironic, but serve as emotional fixes and imply an inclusion in American culture. "I want to invite people into the chaos of those rooms, and I'd like to create a room where it's too difficult for people to stay, with a cat in a corner eating all day long, things everywhere on the floor, kids..." Brenda is grateful to Jean-François Leroy, who gave her the opportunity to continue her project.

Marion Mozzi