Dispatches From Juvenile Hall Essay

Dispatches From Juvenile Hall Essay-14
This darker historical story is skillfully woven into “Upstate Girls.” When Kenneally tells us about Kayla’s brother Robert’s first placement in a juvenile facility, at Vanderheyden Hall, she folds it into an account of how Vanderheyden Hall evolved out of the Troy Orphan Asylum, and how such institutions came into being.The decline of the textile industry is vividly illustrated by the fact that Kayla’s mother, Deb; her grandmother Wilhelmina; and her great-grandmother all worked as sewing-machine operators at Standard Manufacturing Co. in North Troy, until Deb finally moved on to insecure jobs in retail and housekeeping.

This darker historical story is skillfully woven into “Upstate Girls.” When Kenneally tells us about Kayla’s brother Robert’s first placement in a juvenile facility, at Vanderheyden Hall, she folds it into an account of how Vanderheyden Hall evolved out of the Troy Orphan Asylum, and how such institutions came into being.The decline of the textile industry is vividly illustrated by the fact that Kayla’s mother, Deb; her grandmother Wilhelmina; and her great-grandmother all worked as sewing-machine operators at Standard Manufacturing Co. in North Troy, until Deb finally moved on to insecure jobs in retail and housekeeping.

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Kenneally’s own biography primed her to identify with her subjects.

“I had become a fixture among the girls on Sixth Avenue,” she writes.

“I was there on the afternoons when one by one they walked into Kayla’s room and flung their bodies in a pile across her bed like rag dolls putting themselves away.” Born in Albany, she spent much of her childhood in nearby Troy.

Her family had many of the same complications that assail the families in “Upstate Girls,” including mental illness and alcoholism.

Kenneally was pregnant at 14 and got an abortion at her mother’s bidding.

Now approaching 60, she is a successful artist, a winner of two World Press Photo awards and a Guggenheim fellowship. “My love for the girls was deepened by the gratitude I felt to them for returning the bad-girl part of me I’d had to abandon,” she writes.There are babies and parents and lovers and dogs, and stuffed toys that remind us that these young women are still girls.Often shooting with a wide lens, neither prettying things up nor making them intentionally gross, Kenneally respects her material. Troy is, in one sense, an ordinary midsize Rust Belt city whose economy took a beating from the collapse of manufacturing.Brenda Ann Kenneally’s masterful new photo book, “Upstate Girls: Unraveling Collar City,” is a deep study of a group of girls from two or three extended families in Troy, N. Most of them live in the same neighborhood, even on the same block.“Upstate Girls” begins in 2004, when Kenneally is drawn to the story of 14-year-old Kayla, who is pregnant. The baby daddy is Sabrina’s cousin Joshua, and the pregnancy is a result of a casual encounter between Kayla and Joshua while Kayla and Sabrina were on the outs.But with the baby almost due and Joshua in prison, Kayla and Sabrina are back together, determined to be co-parents.Kenneally obtains permission to begin documenting their lives, and does so over the course of nine years, from 2004 to 2013.The boys misbehave at all ages, but there’s no suggestion by Kenneally that there is some straightforward explanation for their misbehavior.Like the girls, they seem more helpless than malicious, largely unable to fight back against their overwhelming circumstances.“Upstate Girls” is in the tradition of socially concerned photography, and it evokes ground-level studies of American poverty like “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” James Agee and Walker Evans’s project on three sharecropping families in 1930s Alabama, or Dorothea Lange’s photographs of the Great Depression in the American West.The images convey the sprawl and messiness of overpopulated interiors or gritty streetscapes.There’s stuff everywhere, page after page, in the paradoxical plenitude of poverty: cheap clothing, packaged food, soda bottles, bedding, posters, wires, balloons, bits of trash on the ground, gaudily painted walls, lots of pink here and there, human limbs and faces and bellies (I can’t recall ever seeing a book with this many pregnant bellies).

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