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Normally, I would be quite skeptical of poetry set to photography, but in this case the blend is stark, current and relevant. Both art forms win in this mix.

In 2009, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett collaborated with photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally and radio producer Lu Olkowski to create “Women of Troy,” which documents the effects of the economic crisis on women living below the poverty line in Troy, New York.

The multi-media Women of Troy combines poetry, photography and audio footage to create “documentary poems” for radio, the web, print and iPhone.

Women of Troy is not a new project so I apologise for those who are familiar with it already. However, if you are not familiar with Kenneally’s work it is you who should be apologising.

Kenneally’s work is possibly the most relevant American photography of the past decade.It is about depressed economies and daily hardships; themes Kenneally has grappled with since long before America’s middle class and global banking began to wither in the global recession. It’s the type of economic disenfranchisement we should be aware of all the time, because depressingly it’s the type of poverty that abides despite the bubbles and bursts of marco-economics.

Untempted by “larger” stories in other lands, she has focused on the difficult lives in her own communities; seven years in Brooklyn, on the border of Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant and since then repeated visits to her home town of Troy in upstate New York.

From 1996 onward, pursuing her Masters in Photography at NYU, Kenneally says, “The education that I got came not from the lecture hall but from the streets in my new neighborhood.”

I was first ware of Kenneally’s photography when I came across her 5-part documentary series on mother and child, Tata and Andy. As a viewer, voyeur, empathetic soul or human in search of solutions, Tata’s monologue for part 3 “The Prison Interview” is very difficult viewing. This and all of Kenneally’s production group can be seen at The Raw File.

Kenneally has made successful use of collaboration and exhibition beyond the usual photo-distribution routes. Her work in Troy began with Upstate Girls, a project that follows seven women for five years as their escape routes out of generational poverty have lead to further entrapment. “I am looking to compile a generational history of the emotional spiral of those resigned to the lower class in The United States,” explains Kenneally.

Kenneally, “The proud aspirations of America’s beginning are seen in stark contrast to Troy’s present social conditions. In 2007 16.3% of all children in Troy were living in households headed by a single female, of these 16% reported income below the U.S. poverty line. Minimum wage jobs with little or no benefits are what most families in Troy survive from. The median income for a family of three is 16,796$.” (Source)

Between The Raw File and Upstate Girls, Kenneally and her colleagues have created a wealth of information. Spend some time.

Lastly, you should check out BagNewsNotes’ recent slideshow with audio commentary from Kenneally. Of which, Kenneally says, “I’ve been trying to figure out why people often feel separated from themselves and their earliest desires and loves and aspirations.”

Further reading

Kenneally on New York Times Lens Blog.


Kenneally’s photographs and Somers-Willetts poems appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review. (Fall 2009). Somers-Willett’s Women of Troy poems have aired on the Public Radio International/WNYC program Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen and BBC Radio.

Women of Troy won the Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media in 2010.


Susan B. A. Somers-Willett

Somers-Willett holds an A.B. from Duke University, and an M.A. in Creative Writing and a Ph.D. in American Literature from The University of Texas at Austin. She has taught poetry and creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University, The University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities. Somers-Willett has received fellowships from the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Center for Arts in Society, and her honors include the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize, the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award, VQR’s Emily Clark Balch Poetry Prize, a Gracie Award, and a Pushcart nomination. She currently teaches creative writing and poetics as an Assistant Professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

Brenda Ann Kenneally

Brenda Ann Kenneally is a mother and an independent journalist whose long-term projects are intimate portraits of social issues that intersect where the personal is political. She is working to push the boundaries of the social document, using the web as a tool to expand and contextualize her immersion style of reporting. Her many awards include the W. Eugene Smith Award for Humanistic Photography, a Soros Criminal Justice Fellowship, the Mother Jones Documentary Photography Award, the International Prize for Photojournalism, a Nikon Sabbatical Grant, the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photojournalism award, and the Cannon Female Photojournalism Grant.


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