The cycle of life has many faces, but none is as striking as the faces of poverty. I stumbled upon Gordon Parks’ brilliant photographic work in Life-Time(1). Gordon Parks was an ordinary African-American who did extraordinary things the moment he purchased his first camera(2) for $12.50. The only way to describe the sights and silent cries emitting from these magnificent scenes Parks created in “A Beaten Family in Rio Slum – Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty,” is hurt. Immediately, I began to write.
For some reason, poverty was Black America for me. The shocking revelation boldly manifested itself as I flipped from one photograph to another, expecting, but not finding one picture of a poor African-American family. From my perspective, I never envisioned a mother of another color with a calico rag wrapped around her head, her eyes dark, her nails filthy, cooking a watery soup over an open fire for eight babies. I sometimes saw a heavyset mother stooped over a porch washing clothes, wringing them by hand, flapping the garments in the wind before hanging them on a clothesline to dry, always African-American.
I had to take another look at Parks’ work, read snippets of the article again, before I realized the scene was Rio de Janeiro. When I think of Rio, I think of a well-deserved vacation on warm beaches. I never ever think of poverty.
Gordon Parks’ enchanting work dispels your need for a vacation and rips at your prejudices by pulling you into each scene, making you feel emotions buried deep within. The cold, gritty, dark rooms emit loneliness you can’t escape. Soles of dirty feet hang limp off edges of worn mattresses. A young boy diligently straightens his bed of straw, a bed that takes up his entire room. There’s no chifferobe to hang his clothes, because there are no extra garments to hang. He has no shoes. As I study this photograph, I wonder where he’s going after he makes his bed. Is there a school nearby? Is he a beggar on the streets of Rio de Janeiro? Is he working in his father’s stead?
In another photograph, at the top of a lone hill, enshrined in clouds, is the Christ the Redeemer Statue. Rooftops serve as stairs leading to the foot of the statue where hope seems remote and dark.
Gordon Parks stirs me beyond comfort when he exposes the dying. They seem to die without hope, hoping to just get on with dying. Do they wonder why death is taking so long? Their faces are resigned to it. But the children around them don’t understand it.
Babes eating from the hands of babes tug at your heart strings. Ribs scaling the abdomens of young children no doubt is the effects of hunger. They eat porridge. There’s no meat. No meal supplements. Babies have no warm milk.
It’s a normal day occurrence for a child to retrieve his water from a foothill, tote it upward, and pour it into a pot in preparation of their next meal. There’s no running water. No refrigeration. No electricity. And no guarantee the water retrieved is free of disease.
Throughout each and every photograph, there is always someone taking care of someone else. No one seems alone, not even the dying. A mother carries three gallons of water on her head, her two little ones in tow. Six or seven children are all in one bed. A boy fetches water for his family. Another feeds his baby sister.
Theses faces of poverty remind us of what we left behind–Family. Though we hate to admit it, we don’t want to relive the effects poverty had on our lives. For all that poverty does to the soul, it consistently melds the human spirit of many into one.
We have forgotten how single mothers worked at laundromats on hard concrete floors to bring home $1.50/hour for a nine-hour day during the 1950s and 60s. Or how momma scrubbed hotel floors and toilets, then go home and give their children a slice of crusted bread plastered with sugar, mayonnaise, butter, or Cane syrup for their evening meal. Rent was due. Though hungry, family hunkered down and got through it.
Maybe we forgot how daddy worked in refineries, did most of the back-breaking work and never got the promotion and pay raise he deserved. You remember how daddy whispered to your mother during the night, telling her how Mr. Henry took credit for his new idea, then getting the recognition and promotion your daddy longed for. As a child, you remember how your daddy sat at the dinner table, his black eyes staring at nothing in particular. You’d talk to him, but later he’d pat you on the head and say “that’s good, son,” but you knew he hadn’t heard a word you said. Now that you’re grown, you know daddy was lost somewhere between feeding and educating you. Taking care of his family never left his mind.
Across America, there is a face of poverty that is going unattended. Most of us have what we need: clothes, food, central heat and air. Yet, young mass murderers are killing because they’re fighting loneliness every day of their lives. Ostracized by others, they are left to feel worthless and unloved. In high schools, somewhere out there, girls are cat-fighting for popularity status by way of character assassination of individuals who can’t fight for themselves. Fathers have run away from home. Mothers are struggling to find a good father, and if they aren’t careful, they end up with someone else’s runaway daddy.
We seem hungry for something we can’t touch, something fulfilling and long-lasting. We’re bumping into walls, flailing our hands in an effort to find that one thing to ease life’s aches and pains.
Gordon Parks’ depiction of poverty leaves no doubt what those faces are looking for. They want hope. These faces of poverty want to grab ahold of a firm line that has a hot, home-cooked meal attached to it. They want a cool, clean cup of water and to sleep by a warm fire. They want the sun to shine through the dark crevices of their lives. They need someone to give them a tight embrace, a warm smile.
With all our technical gadgets, warm homes, full bellies, is it possible we want the very things we’ve left behind? Family. Scoldings from a good and decent father. Daddy helping you fix another old clunker. Smells of mother’s home-cooked meals flowing through the house. Family. To sit together on a front porch in an old rocking chair or porch swing and enjoy the evening sun. Stroll hand-in-hand along the edge of a beach. To laugh at a terrible joke. To sip coffee or tea, in no hurry to go nowhere. Maybe it’s as simple as sitting together at the dinner table with your family–your husband at the head of the table, you at the other end, children squabbling over nothing, everyone happy, smiling, sharing.
Rich or poor, ooh, how we all long to experience family again.
 Life: A Beaten Family in Rio Slum – Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty, Photographed for Life by Gordon Parks
 Wikipedia – Voigtländer Brillant – definition of camera used by Gordon Parks