Around four years ago, Judy Gelles was a volunteer at an inner-city school in Philadelphia. Gelles husband, Richard, is dean of the School of Social Policy & Practice. While helping the children with their reading, she realized that the stories they would read had no connection with their lives. Instead, she began asking the kids to tell their own stories. This was how Word Portraits got its initial inspiration.
Gelles photographed and interviewed students in seven schools. “I found that their stories were just kind of amazing,” says Gelles. “They captured everything that was happening in our society. And I really felt that these stories should be told.”
A couple of years later, Gelles repeated the same project at a private school. What she saw and heard were quite different stories. Gelles realized “how different it was” for those children. That’s when she began creating Word Portraits. It was a series combining a photograph, but not any just any image. She had her subjects turn their backs on the camera. She also had these kids respond to three questions:
- Who do you live with?
- What do you wish for?
- What do you worry about?
“They are not afraid to tell you the way it is,” observed Gelles. Eventually she travelled around the United States, China and India, taking portraits of children and asking them these three same questions. The diversity of responses elicited reveals the differences in culture, living standards, the existence of peace or strife, and aspirations as well as fears. However, in spite of dissimilarity in circumstance, the one recurring constant in all the children was the importance of family.
In the collection, each child’s personality still manages to leap out of the photograph despite their backs being turned at you. It is a brilliant series that is able to graphically illustrate the different realities under which the youth of the world have to grow up in. From affluent conditions to desperate realities, these kids express candidly what they expect out of their lives.
“I think these photos are particularly interesting because [they are] socially relevant and make you think, and it prompts great discussion,” says Ilene Wilder from the Burrison Gallery, where the series went on exhibit recently.
See the thought-provoking Word Portraits of Gelles over on her website.