APRIL 6, 1998:
CHILDREN OF CHILDREN: THE FACES AND VOICES OF TEEN PARENTHOODWitte Museum,
3801 Broadway, San Antonio, through May 10
"I am 32 years old.
-- note tacked up on the public bulletin board in the "Children of Children" gallery
I got home from the opening of Michael Nye's photo exhibit "Childrenof Children" at the Witte Museum in San Antonio determined to inspire as many people as I could to see it. I've already been back myself with three girlfriends in tow, and have made standing offers to friends to babysit their kids any night they choose to drive down. I am certain this outstanding exhibition will go on to be seen around the country, and probably be preserved in book form as well, but it will never be more immediate and intimate than it is now, in these twilit teal-blue galleries in the artist's (and many of the subjects') hometown.
"Children of Children" is a group of 48 black-and-white photographs of teenage parents. About half of the subjects are in their teens now and half are older; "Luz," in fact, is 100 years old. In addition to the teen parents there are photos of "Sid," father of a teen mom, and "Jerri," the now-grown eldest daughter of a 15- and 17-year-old who went on to have nine more children. (Yes, this is Austin's own writer/designer/persona fabulosa, Jerri Kunz.)
Michael Nye is best known for his elegant, often unutterably moving portraits of adults and children from troubled or impoverished areas around the globe: Siberia, Chiapas, Kurdistan. His subjects are presented lovingly but unsparingly, wreathed in a hyper-clear, intense naturalism, sometimes complicated by elements of artifice. For example, in this show, many subjects are photographed in front of a backdrop unrolled in a street or a yard. Some are blurred, some are seen through a keyhole. Some self-consciously display articles of clothing, photographs, or figurines; others choose anonymity with their backs to the camera or with hair in their face. Some are seen with partners, others with parents, others, like the hearbreakingly innocent and beautiful "Becky," with their children.
If this were just a show of photographs, it would be phenomenal. But the pictures are only half of what's offered here. Beneath each image is a pair of headphones, and when you put them on, you hear the voice of the subject, making a statement from two to five minutes in length about his or her experience with teen parenthood. As it turns out, the way Nye listens is similar to the way he sees -- with a rapt, meticulous attention that gives pre-eminence to the natural voice, infusing it with poetic resonance. He honors the stories the way he honors faces, and in doing so, gives us almost shockingly immediate access to a stranger's humanity.
As you listen to the stories, staring into the speakers' eyes, the meaning of the show quickly transcends its stated topic. Teen parenthood becomes a window through which all of life is seen: love, courage, family, aspiration, sorrow, and abuse, the way a destiny takes shape, the interplay between fate and will. There are so many stories I will never forget, but let me tell you just one. The 53-year-old black man called "Cowboy" tells of his mother, a full-blooded Chippewa who had 16 children and died when he was six. "I would have given anything if she could have lived longer," he says, the yearning still audible five decades later.
When his father died shortly after, his brothers and sisters traded him to a white man to pay for his parents' funeral. There he lived in a mud shack with no electricity, beaten by this man "every Saturday, Sunday, and a lot of times on Thursday, too," as well as for fun whenever friends came over. At 18, he was taken to an all-black school for one hour a day. There he met Alice, his first friend. "She was like an angel," he says. When 14-year-old Alice got pregnant, he was sure the man would kill him. Cowboy saw no alternative. He got a gun and went to the man's house to kill him first. But when he arrived, the wife told him he was too late. The man had taken sick and died.
It was a miracle, he explains. He believes in miracles. For him, teen parenthood was a miracle that saved his life.
Many lives here were not saved by teen parenthood -- some are sadly broken. "Katherine", a two-month pregnant 15-year-old, tells us, "If I weren't pregnant, I would be playing ice hockey, football, or bungee jumping." "Esther" tells of her high school friends calling up and making giggly conversation about diapers and baby care: "It's not as much fun as they think it is." The judgments faced from family and society are often severe, and the teen parents are frequently hard on themselves. No matter which ones you listen to, you cannot help but be moved. Even the night of the opening, so crowded and festive, people stood shoulder to shoulder with those headphones on and tears rolling down their cheeks.
The photographs have been hung in pairs, with the stories for both recorded one
after another on a shared tape unit. Because this createssuch interesting juxtapositions,
I assumed it had been an artistic decision. Nye explained that while it may have
added something, it actually came out of financial concerns. He rejected most potential
sources of funding for this show because the money came with an agenda -- a preset
idea of the conclusion the show should offer its viewers. He certainly avoids that.
Not only does the show not offer any pre-packaged attitude about teen parenthood,
it is as rich as life itself.
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