Brenda Ann Kenneally‘s photo essay, “Upstate Girls,” documents the coming of age of five troubled young women in Troy, N.Y. It is a decidedly unromantic view of poverty, dysfunction and teen pregnancy.
Sitting in her home in Brooklyn recently, Ms. Kenneally remembered one particular girl from Troy. This girl was in and out of the juvenile court system. She was involved with a much older boy at 12, became pregnant at 14, had an abortion, was immersed in drugs, and spent a year living in a group home. The odds were stacked against this teenager ever getting out of the cycle of poverty and despair that haunted her neighborhood. But she did.
The girl was Brenda Ann Kenneally.
Her mother and her father — whom she identified as a mentally ill alcoholic — divorced when she was 8. Her father moved in with another woman down the street. Her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Little affection came her way. “I don’t care that we were poor,” Ms. Kenneally said, “but it would have just been nice if they loved us.”
“Most of the people who I knew were drug addicts and criminals, or they were needy relatives,” she said. “I kept fighting with my family, my brother, and every time I did my mother would call the cops. I was facing a year in prison. I remember the detective, Detective Lynch, said: ‘You have to get away from your family. They’re going to get you in trouble.'”
She felt trapped, but her “terminal rebelliousness” and hippie ways helped her aspire to something more. She had to leave Troy.
She hitchhiked away at 16 and, for many years, never looked back.
“I got to Miami and then came a 20-year exile where I found photography and didn’t die,” Ms. Kenneally said. She believes this is why she didn’t end up like the girls she is now documenting.
In Florida, she struggled with alcoholism and drugs, and worked as a waitress, a store clerk and as a bartender in a strip club. She was married and divorced twice before becoming sober in 1986.
After sobering up, Ms. Kenneally resumed her education, studying photojournalism and sociology at the University of Miami. She was also a freelance photographer for The Miami Herald. While traveling with a carnival, she became pregnant with her son Simon (now 15), married again, moved to New York City and divorced again.
She raised Simon on the edge of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Bushwick and documented her neighbors and their struggle with poverty and the illicit drug trade. Those photographs were published in “Money Power Respect” (Channel Photographics, 2005) and can be found on the Raw File site, produced by Laura Lo Forti.
While photography has changed her life, it hasn’t made her financially stable. She has made very little money on her documentary projects, rarely gets magazine assignments and has been on food stamps more often than not.
By chance, she returned to Troy in 2002 on assignment for The New York Times Magazine to photograph “Prison Is a Member of Their Family,” by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc. Ms. Kenneally stayed in touch with one of her subjects, whose friend’s story — “reminding me of me” — began Ms. Kenneally’s photo essay, “Upstate Girls,” a project that continues.
The searing photographs in “Upstate Girls” have brought her prestigious awards, including a Canon Female Photojournalist Award, a Getty Images Grant for Editorial Photography and first prize for stories about daily life, from World Press Photo.
Not content simply to photograph her subjects’ tattered lives, Ms. Kenneally is trying to help girls who have run afoul of the legal system, as she did. She is working on a graphic novel that will include her photographs, and she has started workshops in which girls make scrapbooks to help them think about their lives and choices they can make.
With the filmaker MacGregor Thomson, Ms. Kenneally is editing a series of minidocumentaries on the girls. She has also relaunched her Web site, Upstate Girls, designed by Murray Cox and produced by Steven Zeswitz. She is trying to raise money for these projects while also studying for a Ph.D. in electronic media at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
While Ms. Kenneally hopes to help teenage girls in trouble, she has few illusions.
“I think breaking away is damn near impossible,” she said. “It’s the hardest thing I ever did.”
2:38 p.m. | Updated An explanation of the transliterations used in this post, following the article, has been expanded.
Original post | Although I was born in the United States, Toishan is my ancestral home. I speak a local dialect of Cantonese that is incomprehensible to the rest of China.
Toishan is a county-level city of 1 million people in Guangdong Province in southern China. I have been photographing there since 1989. It looks at first glance like many other areas: a few gleaming buildings and factories, multilane divided highways, McDonald’s, new cars and well-dressed pedestrians. It seems to exemplify wealth and economic growth.
Behind this facade is Toishan’s peculiar history. Until the 1960s, two-thirds of all overseas Chinese, like my family, originated from this one small region. It was poor and over-populated during the 19th century and very close to Guangzhou, where the foreign powers first penetrated China. Thus it was a fertile recruiting ground for the “coolies” who built the American transcontinental railroad, and for the generations who emigrated to become restaurant workers and laundrymen.
My paternal great uncle, Sing Chin, left our village of Gongmei in 1927, traveling first to Cuba and then the United States. My father, Fow Sang Chin, followed in 1951. He would not see my mother for 18 years. They worked in family-run laundries in the Bronx and Queens, and I grew up in that now-vanished world of the old sojourners’ Chinatown.
Those were tumultuous years in China, with the Second World War and civil war between Communists and Nationalists. Contact with the motherland was almost completely severed during the Cold War and the chaos of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The lives of the Chinese in the diaspora diverged radically from those of our relatives back home. Politically and culturally, mainland China disintegrated and rebuilt itself in paroxysms of murderous totalitarianism and then unabashed capitalist reform.
Many ordinary social services like schools and hospitals survive only on donations from overseas. State funding has withered. The health system once provided basic, if primitive, care to all. It is now accessible only to those who can pay. Villages have lost their populations as residents seek better opportunities elsewhere.
My last remaining close relative in Toishan was a great aunt who died early last year. My father’s house and the house in which my mother was born now sit empty, their former inhabitants scattered across the United States, Malaysia and Canada.
But when I walk through the rice fields and the paved roads that now lead to Gongmei, villagers recognize me and accept me as a native son — albeit one who is overheard speaking in English on a mobile phone and seems to spend an inordinate amount of time taking photographs. After all, I keep returning. And my name is on the donors’ plaque of the recently built community center.
The more time I spend there, the more it begins to feel like some kind of home, illusory as that might seem. Despite the persistent poverty and the vast chasm between Gongmei and my life in New York, I can foresee a time when Toishan might become like Tuscany, a picturesque region rich in history and architectural heritage, a vacation getaway. For now, though, it is still part of the forgotten rural China, engulfed in a crisis that is quiet but sustained.
Instead of the conventional transliteration system of Pinyin, which The Times ordinarily uses, Mr. Chin has employed Jyutping Cantonese in his post. Readers accustomed to seeing the name “Taishan” will find it rendered Toishan (台山) here, in part to avoid confusion with the famous mountain of Taishan (泰山) and also because Mr. Chin said it is closer to the local pronunciation. In this post, Gongmei is used for 江美 , rather than “Jiangmei”; Hoiping for 開平 , rather than “Kaiping”; and Cekham for 赤坎 , rather than “Chikan.” Slides 2, 3 and 8 were originally captioned Hoiping, but are now more precisely captioned Cekham. (The town of Cekham is part of the district of Hoiping, Mr. Chin explained.)