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This weekend, the entire issue of The New York Times Magazine is devoted to the topic of families and food insecurity, the lack of consistent access to healthy meals that affects millions in America. The issue features 18 images by the photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally, who, in the spirit of Dorothea Lange’s Dust Bowl journeys, took a 92-day trip from New York to California in a camper to document those who were struggling. The pictures are part of a collaboration between the magazine and the National desk that includes an online multimedia package.
Guiding Ms. Kenneally on her journey were two photo editors, Amy Kellner and Rory Walsh, who worked with food distribution centers to find families for her to visit. Ms. Kenneally also shot subjects she knew. In her youth, Ms. Kenneally bounced among several homes, and she later received federal food benefits while raising her son as a single mother in Brooklyn. “She has dedicated her life to telling the stories of people who face daily struggles,” said Kathy Ryan, director of photography at the magazine.
In an edited interview, Ms. Kenneally talked about the assignment and her experiences that informed it.
You photographed over 50 families for this project. How did you form those relationships?
I was very honest about what I wanted to do. I asked them if I could go home with them and photograph them as they prepared a meal. Sometimes I shopped with them and served their families. I explained to them — if it needed explanation — that we could learn a lot from them and their lived experience during this time with the way they have access to food. I told them that in every situation we were going to show a meal on the table.
You do not call yourself a photojournalist. Why?
The idea of photojournalism is that you produce a thing, the photograph. I aim to grow beyond the production of a thing. Like, what are we going to do? What is the next step? What is the conversation that will be had from the making of these photos, and the visits to these people’s homes? That’s why the photos are just a jumping-off point for discussion. They are not the end of the story or the culmination of the story. In fact, they’re the beginning.
What are the discussions you hope people have?
What we have in this country largely is a distribution problem of wealth and resources. The systems of distribution have been shut down or altered, but not because of the pandemic — disastrous events like Covid-19 only exposed the flaws of those systems. So for a while now, it’s been very difficult to even get food to where it needs to be. We have enough resources to assist our fellows in ways to create lives of greater possibility, certainly sustainability, and some kind of security. But the wealth is controlled by a very small percentage of individuals, and systems are put in place to perpetuate that. There’s no better example than food. The people who are bringing us food make the smallest wage, and the system is designed to keep people fed just enough so they can keep working to make the folks on top wealthier. That kind of discussion, you can start it with a meal on the table and the food as a symbol of inequity and insecurity.
You finished this trip several weeks ago, but is there any image that has stuck with you?
It is a visit to one family. It’s a girl, she’s eating soup that was made by her dad, and she’s 11 years old. She has ADHD. She is raised by a dad whose husband died. The dad was in the military. A gay man during the time of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. He adopted this girl from a family member. Now he’s in his 60s, and she is approaching young womanhood. They are eating pasta shells that he sautéed up in a pan with a can of tomato soup and a can of diced tomatoes. And that was what he calls “cheap soup.” There was nothing in that photo that belies anything that I told you as a back story, including the urn that he had next to his bookcase, with the rainbow flag over it, that contains his husband.
I left there feeling that I wanted her voice to be heard. I believe I felt that way because I didn’t see the pathway for that to happen. Sometimes being well-adjusted is not what you want. You don’t want to be comfortable with scarcity. So, the feeling that I had with that family was bittersweet. I love the fact that they had each other, and they weren’t complaining about it, and they formed a family. Yet I hoped that her voice could be heard so that she is the new face of our future.
How did your upbringing inform how you approached this project?
I would say that has fully formed the human being that I am. And so I’m able to approach a lot of situations in life with experience that allows me to just receive whoever is gracious enough to invite me into their life. That is much more important than any kind of knowledge of photography. Being human, being rich in lived experience, enables you to sit down at a table, literally and figuratively, and be present in an unconditionally loving, nonjudgmental way.
There is a focus on children in this project. Why did you gravitate toward kids?
When kids are there, they steal the show. I do love me some old people though. The beginning and the end of the life spectrum. But I think when you look at kids, you definitely see what we’re investing in. What those kids are eating, how they’re living, it is a real indicator of the future. You can see red or blue states, or left or right, but I don’t think anyone doesn’t come together in agreement that we all want to take care of our kids.
Food insecurity is a topic of national conversation. What is the subtext that you know to be true when you see those headlines?
There’s this idea that people have to deserve being fed, to earn their right to eat. In Covid, that has been laid aside and you have people from across the political spectrum showing up at food lines. There’s a moratorium on the shame and your virtue being tied to feeding yourself.
When I see those headlines, I want to keep it in the forefront of our collective consciousness that — just like the Great Depression — the people who are going to be the hardest hit by struggle have always been struggling. There has been a landscape of insecurity and economic inequity that has only been widening over the past decade.
We’re talking about food insecurity and it’s great. However, we must be careful that it does not cloud the larger systemic inequality that is coming home to roost in our country.