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NEXT Project Presents an Intimate Family Portrait

 

Noelle Smith, Photojournalism, BFA ’15, remembered the night she pulled into the Annapolis gas station where her friend Zeus worked. Just days into her senior year, Noelle was contemplating the subject for her thesis project. Broaching the topic in casual conversation, Zeus proposed an idea.

“Why don’t you just follow me around with your camera?” he said. Noelle snickered at first. But he wasn’t kidding. “I’ve got an interesting life,” he told her.

What began as banter at the local gas station became a photographic journey that has changed Noelle’s life. Zeus invited Noelle to the small section 8 apartment his girlfriend Mira shares with her mother and their two children. For the past six months, Noelle’s camera documented the couple and their children, six-month-old daughter Kimari and newborn son Marlin.

She has captured the arch of their relationship, from their struggles with poverty to the strains of parenthood to the dangers and temptations of their urban streets. The result is a photojournalism tour de force called Threshold, a starkly intimate portrait of a family navigating life in one of the poorest sections of Annapolis.

Noelle started taking photos on the spot, catching Zeus in his most unguarded moments. Noelle slowly entered his personal life – picking him up from his late shift at the gas station and finally accompanying him to Mira’s apartment. Noelle was hesitant at first; would Mira and her family accept her into their home? Noelle was surprised when Mira embraced the idea.

“I started out standing in the background snapping pictures,” Noelle said. “After a couple of sessions, I was really getting into the thick of their lives.”

Over the next few months, Noelle’s black and white images captured the texture and intricacies of the couple’s life—from washing dishes and watching television to playing with little Kimari. Zeus and Mira’s story, Noelle explained, details the cycle of poverty, the hardships of parenthood under trying circumstances and the effects of people’s choices. Her images also give a glimpse into a world that is tucked away from the seemingly picturesque city of Annapolis. Her project’s goal is to expose the preconceived notions about what it is like to live below the poverty line.

“I want to make people aware of the hardships that families in poverty go through,” she said, “to open their eyes to a different kind of life.”

A Study in Isolation in Relationships

The images speak volumes about how the depth of poverty is interlaced with the relationship Zeus and Mira share, Noelle explained.

As she watched them struggle with mounting bills and argue over the status of their relationship, she discovered her photos were painting a relationship defined by isolation and disconnection.

“I realized as I was developing the photos that every image of them together portrays a disconnect. They hardly ever look at each other. They are often looking off to the side, on a cell phone or watching television,” she said. “It’s like they build screens and self-imposed dividers between them. The only time I capture them looking at each other is right before an argument.”

Noelle was often an uneasy audience to the couples’ arguments. To highlight the impact of poverty’s frustrations on an entire family, Noelle framed shots of baby Kimari against her parents bickering in the background.

As her project progressed and Noelle spent more time with the family, she recognized she was becoming intimately involved in her subjects’ lives.

“I’ve come to really care about Mira and the babies,” Noelle said. Kimari routinely jumps into Noelle’s arms when she shows up at the apartment. “It’s like I’m part of the family,” she said.

But not everyone in the family welcomed Noelle into the home. Mira’s mother vehemently opposed the intrusion upon their lives. Threshold features just one image of her — a snapshot of her fast asleep beside baby Kimari.

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“She worries that I’m exploiting them,” Noelle said. Noelle herself struggled with that moral dilemma; was her camera taking advantage of a family’s hardship? However, she aided the family the best she could, driving Mira to doctors’ appointments, buying Christmas and birthday presents for the family. Meanwhile she hoped her camera was documenting an often hidden American issue.

“I wanted to capture an informative story that people should be aware of and at the same time, elicit an emotional response from the audience,” she said.

While Noelle has come close to telling that story, she realizes she is anxiously approaching its final chapter. Once she completes her project, she concedes she will step back from the family’s life.

“Mira often calls to check up on me and sometimes I stop by without my camera just to spend time with the kids,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll lose touch. I’m too invested in their well-being at this point.”

Noelle’s images from Threshold will be on display at the NEXT 2015 Corcoran School Thesis Exhibition from April 8 – May 17.