Master photographer Edward Steichen once remarked that the mission of photography is to explain human to human and each to him or herself. It was a mission he found at once both complicated and naïve, but worth fumbling toward. “Every other artist begins with a blank canvas, a piece of paper,” notes Steichen. “The photographer begins with the finished product.”
It is a thought befitting of a scene from 2001, when the who’s who of the country’s finest photographers volunteered their time for such a mission. What they discovered is that when the “finished products” are the faces of children in foster care systems across the country, photography can offer can explain human to human in a way that offers the chance of new life.
Diane Granito is the founder of the Heart Gallery, a unique program that uses photography to help find homes for older foster children, sibling groups, and other children who are traditionally difficult to place with families.(1) The program started in New Mexico in 2001 at the suggestion of a local photographer. Space was then donated by a prominent gallery in the city, where more than a thousand people came opening night. The photos on exhibit were the end result of the photographers’ attempts to coax out the unique personalities in hundreds of children—a great contrast to the typical photos attached to a child’s file. “They look like mug shots,” said one of the photographers of the typical case photos. “This is an opportunity to just portray them as kids in their environments,” said another involved. “We’re treating this as a living, breathing project.”
Since its inception, the Santa Fe project has inspired 120 more Heart Galleries across the United States. In some places, the adoption rate after an exhibit is more than double the nationwide rate of adoption from foster care. Such photography earns a description worthy of its roots: photography in Greek means “to write in light.”
Those who work to find foster children adoptive families are used to rubbing up against the public perception that most foster children have serious emotional and behavioral problems. Sometimes, though not always, it is an accurate perception. And a picture offered in a different light does not change the child it portrays. But an image of a troubled child at play does offer the accurate light of hope.
We all have many faces that could be portrayed to the world, depending on the moment and the light in which we are portrayed. If the pictures that represented us to the world were pictures that showed our worst sides, I wonder how different the circles of people around us would be. There are definitely certain faces I would prefer not to have captured in a photograph and placed in my file. While those close to me have by now seen me in many kinds of light, it is frightening to imagine my adoption being contingent on any one of them.
And yet, this is precisely the story the Christian tells. Our adoption as God’s own was completed as we stood in the worst of all possible lights. The apostle who called himself the chief of sinners called it a demonstration of God’s unlikely love: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.(2) That is to say, he held dear even the pictures of us at our worst.
While imprisoned for his attempts to stand again Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled with the many reflections of his own life. As a seminary instructor he was considered a saint and a giant. In America he felt like an escapist. In prison they made him feel like a criminal. There were days when he saw himself as all three and all the stages in between. It was in such a convolution of images that he asked:
“Who am I?
This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me,
these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine.”(3)
In the Christian story, we are made sons and daughters of God through Jesus Christ by the Spirit. Which is to say, Jesus casts us in such a light as to explain human to human and each to him or herself. We are taken up as God’s own and named as co-heirs of all that this identity promises. We are held in and held by the light of Christ himself. And it is this picture he holds for us as children before the Father until the day when there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, and face-to-face, God can wipe every tear from our eyes.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(2) Romans 5:8.
(3) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 348.