"Parents left me in a motel room at age eight. Put cigarette butts out on my face. Tore my hair out. Left never to return again. I remember lying in that motel bed with the cartoons going and thinking, 'Mommy will be back soon.' I'm 37 years old — Mommy still hasn't come back." — Judy Pruitt
On December 22, 1991, the Houston Chronicle published a story about a 21-year-old street kid known as "Snow." The moniker had been tattooed on her right arm, permanently stained under the "pure as the driven snow" fair skin from which she took her street name. Snow's story chronicled her street life in Montrose, raised by a household of transvestite prostitutes after being abandoned by her abusive parents. She begged, tricked and stole to survive, had run-ins with the law and delivered three children (each by a different father). One baby was adopted; two were taken by Child Protective Services.
Not only was the story an example of a kind of journalism that is steadily disappearing from mainstream newspapers (gritty, in-depth, real), but it also contained a stunning photojournalism element, which is the main subject of the current DiverseWorks exhibit "Understanding Poverty."
Ben Tecumseh DeSoto was a staff photographer at the Houston Chronicle for 25 years (1981-2006). On assignment in 1988, DeSoto met Snow, whose real name is Judy Pruitt, and the meeting kicked off a relationship — and a kind of collaboration — that continues to today. The photos on display convey narratives that delve into the traumatized psychology of poverty and reveal hard truths about the broken-down system that perpetuates it.
As a photojournalist, DeSoto's task is incredibly difficult. How does one capture a completely objective story on camera without influencing it in some way? After all, human subjects behave differently when someone's following them around with a camera. Truth is an ever-elusive ideal in documentary photography, and it's the photographer's job to pursue and represent truth, but it's an inherently impossible ideal. Nevertheless, DeSoto is essentially on target.
The work reminds me of photographer Jim Goldberg's Raised by Wolves project, which, similarly, focuses on street kids in San Francisco at roughly the same point historically. Goldberg's book includes text, much of it handwritten by his subjects, narrating their complex street life. And even if Goldberg presents his images in a "streetwise" aesthetic, his main goal (like a photojournalist's) is to inform and educate. Likewise, DeSoto employs a similar technique, including large chunks of text and quotes from literature to augment the imagery.
Pruitt's story begins with a typed bio and general overview of her situation. There's a photo from 1988 of her panhandling near a freeway overpass, dangerously navigating the cars and holding a cardboard sign that says "Just A LiTTLe HELP PLEASE," taken when she lived under the Pierce Elevated. The cars and Pruitt's jean jacket and white painter's cap are indicative of the time. There's a portrait of Pruitt with one of her babies taken at the Montrose Refuge, a youth center near what is now Covenant House. Despite her situation, Pruitt is smiling in many of these pictures, like the one taken on a street corner in the 600 block of Fairview. Pruitt's bleached-blond hair and pink fleece jacket match the warm, lit windows of the dilapidated apartments and the rosy twilight sky. There's nice color saturation in these photos, including a scene at downtown's Londale Hotel, where Pruitt's friends help her get ready for a night out. It's a night out hooking, as the next photo depicts: Pruitt and her transvestite friend on a street corner at night. It's a hilarious picture, really. The transvestite, wearing a red-and-white polka-dot dress, is clutching a 40-ounce in one hand and adjusting her bra with the other; Pruitt is standing there, dazed, wearing a bizarre outfit: black leotard, acid-washed jean corset-type thing, white tube socks and red tennis shoes.
One photo is revealing for what it says about Pruitt and DeSoto's relationship. It's August '92, and Pruitt is in jail, about to be interviewed by Channel 26 reporter Scott Barrett. She sits at a table with the reporter, who is doing a follow-up after the Chronicle story. She's wearing her jail-issued yellow jumpsuit, and a shock of her red hair is sticking up in a white bow. She's looking into DeSoto's lens with an expression of nervous elation and excitement, like she's thinking, "I'm really going to be on TV?" At the same time, she looks genuinely happy to see DeSoto's familiar face, as if she'd been missing a friend.
Scattered along the walls are quotes that address poverty, and they serve the "information" element of the show. After all, it's called "Understanding Poverty," but that understanding is clearly a work in progress for all. DeSoto's purpose here is to move closer to finding solutions, and he thinks a major step forward is simply to look at the problem, unflinchingly. One quote, by George Orwell, addresses our misunderstanding: "You thought [poverty] would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first, the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust wiping."
Other narratives in the show include the equally touching and harrowing story of Ben White, a homeless man DeSoto followed. There are disturbing images of crack and heroin use, domestic abuse and homeless life on the street. One section of photos addresses city programs and initiatives to document and help those in need.
Like HBO's grossly underappreciated series The Wire, DeSoto is presenting subject matter that's hard to crack, initially, but once you connect with it, it becomes absorbing and rewarding. It's an ugly world, but it's worth getting lost in.