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Grandeur and misery through Kenneally's lens

Text by Sarah LEDUC

Latest update : 2009-09-08

At the International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan in southern France, Brenda Ann Kenneally is exhibiting “Upstate Girls”, a five-year investigation into the American working class of which she herself is a product.

Brenda Ann Kenneally is what is known as a character. Dressed in black from head to foot and adorned with nose

piercings, as well as henna tattoos, from her ankles to her wrists, she arrives more than an hour late. Her previous interview ran late, she talked too much. But she is inexhaustible.  


Kenneally’s exhibit, “Upstate Girls: What Became of Collar City”, tells the story of the women of Troy, a small town in upstate New York that was once a symbol of American growth and has now become a victim of the financial crisis.  

An intimate look at northern girls

Over five years, Kenneally followed the lives of six young women who grew up and matured, mired in financial and intellectual misery. Having been abandoned by their partners and lacking education, these women work odd jobs to support the children that they had as teenagers.


Kenneally was welcomed into these women’s daily lives and was able to snap pictures of their most intimate moments: a teenager in labour, two women embracing, children fighting. She believes it was her unique proximity that allowed her to capture such naturalness in her photos.


“Intimacy, it’s kind of harder to get out of it than to get into it,” she tells FRANCE 24. “You’re here, you’re working. If I’m standing in a room, someone’s gonna hand me a brush. Some kids need to be picked up, somebody got arrested down here, a dog has got hit, the mom can’t stay here with the kids, has to run somewhere.... You’re kind of enlisted.”

‘This is what I could have become’

Troy was not picked at random. Kenneally grew up there, in a home environment similar to those she photographs. Her father, an alcoholic gambling addict, left when she was still a child. Left to her own devices early in life, she fell into delinquency.


She was sent to reform school by the age of 12 and had become a drug addict by 16, later fleeing to Florida when she turned 18. It was a descent into hell that lasted more than 10 years. At 26, she took control of her life again and began rehabilitation. Although attracted by singing, it is through photos that she truly found her voice.


“When I started to take pictures, it just felt right,” she says. And armed with this proof, she no longer lets go of her camera.


It's just by chance that she went back to Troy, in the form of an assignment for Time magazine. While rediscovering the past she had fled, she decided to focus her work on the women she could have become.


“My goal with my hometown was to get out of my hometown,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t left. I don’t even know if I would be alive. In many ways, it was toxic to me. I saw much of this with these girls. I’d be like them if I hadn’t left 20 years ago.”

The anti-American dream

Having lived in New York City with her son since 1996, Kenneally has not forgotten where she comes from and has dedicated many years to understanding America’s social misery. With “Upstate Girls”, she tries to unravel the causes and consequences of the American dream.


She points out the perverse effects of globalisation that make up the visual and social landscape of the United States. But it is not so much the US system that she criticises but an excessive sense of individualism a lack of consideration for the working class, which she hopes will change in the Obama era.


“My America is the one I criticise,” she says. “I f***ing hate it. But I love it. … What’s gonna change with Obama is that these people will feel they have a place in the dialogue.


“You can easily blame the system, but if we just took care of our neighbors, things would be better.”


It’s a lesson in humanism.

Winner of the Canon Female Photojournalist Award in 2008, Brenda Ann Kenneally won the World Press Photo award in 2003. Her book, “Money, Power, Respect”, received the award for best photojournalism book of the year in 2006.


Date created : 2009-09-04