Where stories are not being told: Oakland's Creative Growth Center

Below, Lange Fellow Mimi Chakarova outlines the documentary photography project that she will pursue with the aid of the 2003 fellowship. Chakarova has said, "I go wherever stories are not being told, or are being told through a slanted perspective. To be successful, my photos must not only educate people, but motivate them to take action." The project she proposes follows those principles.

"It's tough to be a black hero" reads an illustrated brochure with Afro-wearing action figures. Next to it is a letter William wrote to his psychiatrist. "I don't want Diana Ross no more. For years she gives me nervous and makes me upset."

"Why did you break up with her?" I ask.

He needs a church going girl to get rid of the voices in his head, he explains. William shows me his new drawings. "My new citizen girlfriend," he slides one sheet of controlled charcoal strokes.

I met William at Oakland's Creative Growth Center. In 1973, Creative Growth in Oakland, California was the first independent visual arts center for severely disabled adults in the U.S. Today, it continues to provide creative art programs, educational and independent living training, counseling and vocational opportunities for over 120 adults who are physically, mentally and emotionally disabled. But most importantly, the center facilitates a notion of purpose and hope for those who spent years of their lives in mental institutions.

Over 54 million Americans live with disabilities. The federal definition of developmental disabilities covers people whose disability occurs before age 22 and includes a mental or physical impairment or a combination of both. There must be a substantial limitation in three or more of these major life areas: self-care; expressive or receptive language; learning; mobility; capacity for independent living; economic self-sufficiency; or self-direction. In California alone, more than half a million people cope with developmental disability.

I first began photographing at Creative Growth in 2001. I met people with mental retardation, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, and related developmental health problems. After three months of working on this project, I was able to establish trust and form relationships with the adults, which allowed me to make the portraits I am submitting. All photographs are black and white, shot with a 35-mm camera.

At this stage of the project, I would like to intimately profile several people coping with disability as they go through everyday life in their homes and public spaces where people often judge them wrongly and classify them as "retards." Although some are mentally retarded, most of the people I photograph are fully aware of the prejudice or pity that others feel toward them. They desperately try to integrate themselves in this society, but nevertheless are always perceived as "other" because they still live with their parents or appear physically different. Naturally, those with disability form romantic relationships with others like them, which is also part of this documentation. I anticipate the duration of my project to be at least one year. My goal is to have a collection of intimate environmental portraits encapsulating daily life as well as conducting interviews with those participating in the project.

Photography has the visual power to educate by allowing us to enter the lives and experiences of others. Dorothea Lange, a master of capturing the human condition with compassion and dignity, once said, "the camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." Documentary photography pieces together one's story over a period of time, illustrating fragments of reality. But most importantly, the viewer becomes a witness to another person's condition and afterwards, as a witness, carries a sense of social responsibility.