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'Moving Walls' Breaks Barriers to Social Change
With pictures like the one above (Betty, Lindsay Park, 2000), Régina Monfort uses atypical imagery to portray life in the 'hood.

She's beautiful. But that's not the first thing that grabs you. It's her gaze. Like a modern-day Mona Lisa, Betty stares out from the photograph and makes you wonder what she sees that inspires such peace and serenity, such fortitude. Betty's picture is part of the Beyond Grand Street, Brooklyn, New York photo documentary in the exhibit "Moving Walls," currently on view at the School of Social Work.

Photographed by Régina Monfort, Beyond Grand Street is paired with another photo documentary, If I Could See Your Face I Would Not Need Food, by Eric Gottesman. The two exhibits underscore the challenges -- both heart-stirring and gut-wrenching -- that social workers face in the field. When you see the other photos in the exhibit and the story they tell, you understand Betty's gaze a little more—but also a little less.

"Moving Walls" is sponsored by the Open Society Institute, a New York City-based foundation that initiates a range of education, media and public health programs aimed at promoting open societies. One goal of the installation is to raise awareness of the societal barriers that hamper political expression and economic stability. Those barriers -- language, racism, sexism, poverty, class distinctions and others -- are the same obstacles social work professionals face in the field. And Betty's story underscores them.

With the Beyond Grand Street documentary, photographer Monfort tells the story of a group of Hispanic teenagers who deal with typical teen angst as well as more adult struggles such as parenthood. Monfort's background as a photographer in the studios of fashion and portrait icons Richard Avedon and Irving Penn is present in this work. Her intimate portraits show the inner workings of the kids' neighborhood without resorting to stereotypical images of violence and poverty. Although those elements are certainly present in the lives of Betty and her friends, Monfort uses varying moments of laughter, anger and sorrow to portray the lives of her subjects.

The same level of intimacy is seen in the If I Could See Your Face documentary, the title of which is taken from an Ethiopian proverb. Gottesman's photos evoke a certain voyeuristic feeling that is followed quickly by guilt. Viewers watch as young Ethiopians reveal details of their struggle to live with a disease that cripples them socially. People infected with the HIV virus are ostracized and abandoned in Ethiopian society. The social stigma associated with having the disease prevented many of them from showing their faces. Gottesman photographed them in ways that conceal their identities. Many of the photos are coupled with letters from the subjects. They ask for help and empathy, but the loudest -- and unarticulated -- plea is for acknowledgement of their humanity.

Overcoming the barriers to social change, or at least being able to see through them, is an important first step for social workers. Jeanette Takamura, dean of the School of Social Work, notes that social workers must "look for every possible way to forward discourse." Beyond Grand Street and If I Could See Your Face do exactly that.

Published: Nov 22, 2004
Last modified: Jan 10, 2005

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