A Concerned Photographer: Helen M. Stummer

No Easy Walk

No Easy Walk
BY Helen M. Stummer
(Temple University Press, 1994)

HELEN M. STUMMER was born in Newark in 1936. She is a visual sociologist and photographer who took photos of impoverished people in Newark’s Central Ward from 1980 and 1993. These pictures appeared in her book, No Easy Walk, alongside her own ethnographic fieldwork. The book asks, “Are people poor?” and “What happened to Newark?” and in many ways documents her own interactions with the people she photographed.

This interview explores how Stummer sought that subject, how she engaged with the people in her photos, and more broadly, how photography can be a tool to address memory and history. Stummer is partly a photojournalist or concerned photographer and partly an artist. Her work is the physical embodiment of abstractions: dignity, struggle, dissent, disappointment, ugliness in beauty, and clarity in chaos. Her pictures actively try to destroy the idea of the poor as undeserving or as criminal.

Her work is an act of protest. She also sees it as an act of self-portraiture. Read more at www.hmstummer.com

November 26, 2009

One thing we hate is rejection… We’re so afraid of being rejected and so people don’t take a risk when it comes to people. Who wants it? I didn’t want it. But for some reason, I learned, I really have a gift. I was only refused twice in 35 years by people who didn’t want me to photograph them. After a while I had to tell my students, “Don’t take it personally,” because they don’t know me; how can I take it personally? They could be a Gypsy… they think they’re losing their soul, or the Amish, someone could be hiding, it could be an abused person hiding for some reason… or they don’t like being photographed. People are amazing to me. They would let me into their home. It’s uncanny. I was always bowled-over, I was always so amazed how people allowed me into their life with hardly any hesitating. It’s a gift. It must be a gift. I don’t believe it happens to everyone.

It’s about education but also to try to awaken someone’s sensibilities, to go past the stereotype, to try to get a sense of what is it like to live in this environment.

I heard the other day someone said why my work was unique. I never thought my work was unique; it was because they felt I may be the only person in America who has spent so much time in an urban environment with some of the same families. They don’t believe it’s ever been done. I just don’t think of it as anything. I never had a plan or a goal. I just did it because I did it; I wish I had a goal. It just happened. I did it from my gut, my heart more than anything. It felt right. It became a passion. I really want to help other people; the advocacy part of me was really enraged by the conditions people were forced to live under. It enraged me, because I realized it’s man-made. It doesn’t have to be.

I interviewed politicians… if their grandmother was forced to live like that, it would change. We could fix it. For No Easy Walk, that’s why I wrote it like that, to show why people are poor; that’s what I wrote the book about — why people are poor. It’s spelled out — why are people poor. One thing white people always ask me is: “Why don’t people move if they don’t like it there?” A lot of my work never got published, but it enrages me. I never cared about a person’s skin color… I never did. I photographed in Maine where they’re all white people. I photographed on the LES where there’s a mixture; I photographed in Newark where they’re all black. It’s the way it is. We’re segregated. What I’m doing is trying to show people in the inner city as individuals and they need to be respected as individuals, like we all are.

But then I knew early on that people really didn’t want to look at pictures of poor people. It’s not a big seller or a big draw; you can’t draw people in much. So, I have to make them beautiful composition-wise and present them as beautifully as possible and that means the foreground is just as important as the background, the expression of the person, the lighting, and there’s that energy part that nobody knows about… it’s either there or not there. And then to present it as a print, to make the most beautiful print possible with all the tones. And then I always present my work on masonite; no frame, no glass. I wanted the spectator to be as close to the environment as possible. They’re not there, but there is nothing to hinder it, nothing to obscure it… you are there. As close as you can get by not being there. That is always how I present my work. It’s about education but also to try to awaken someone’s sensibilities, to go past the stereotype, to try to get a sense of what is it like to live in this environment. And not what’s on TV or in the newspaper. I have found the poorer you are, the nicer you are. Maybe that’s a stereotype too, but that’s what I’ve found. People were always so kind to me, and I was always amazed, because I really didn’t get that in my own family that much. It kind of surprised me all the time how well I was received, no matter where I was.

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