Brenda Ann Kenneally

Interview by Svetlana Bachevanova

My son Simon and his new friends on the block in Brooklyn, NY, 1997.

SB. What attracts you to do open ended projects? How many projects are you following now?

BAK. I have three projects now in various stages of production: The Upstate Project, I am editing a film and book that I shot about my dad during the last six years of his life. He died 2 years ago and we agreed that I would not look at the stuff till after he was gone. It is so powerful hearing his words to me now and there are hundreds of hours of footage to look through. I edit with my dearest friend Laura Loforti every Friday. We call them fast Eddie Fridays. I feel like my dad is parenting me from the grave and I will be sad when the editing is finished, as I can never have that intense interaction with him again. This is a common feeling about all my projects. The Brooklyn work as well, which is my 3rd project. I keep going back to Andy – the main boy in the “Money Power Respect” book – as I see how his life is developing and each moment is more or less important than the last. When I stop it is as if my life with these people ends. In the case of my dad’s work it really will. I sort of never want that to happen.


My father shaving, 2006

SB. Is it difficult to established trust with your subjects? Why do they accept you so close in their intimate life?

BAK. I establish trust in photography the way anyone starts and maintains a relationship. I show up. I am interested. I hope the other party is interested in me. I reveal as much or more about myself as I would want them to do of themselves. I am myself at all times, or I try to be. I am honest about what I do. I notice after years of doing what I do that people see that I am passionate and I work hard. I think the hard part for some to understand is why I do this really for no monetary reward. In fact many who have visited me and see the way I juggle money to keep going wonder why I would do this at all. Only perhaps an artist or an obsessive person might understand this. This kind of documentary work requires a kind of obsessive pathology and stamina. Also one must have a big empty space that allows for complete integration of life and work. Luckily for me I was born with this empty space. Some call it loneliness. I say it is a gift.

SB. Do you worry about being emotionally bound up with your subjects'?

BAK. I only worry about not being emotionally bound with my subjects

SB. Often photography is described as objective coverage of reality. Do you agree with this or do you think it is more a personal reflection of who you are?

BAK. I absolutely always say that the pictures that I make are about me. And, of course, I do not know anyone who can truly leave themselves behind in all situations. Even the most altruistic acts have personal motivations. This is why it is so important that we hear all voices in the news media, etc., as there is a danger that folks with less power resources and a less healthy senses of entitlement won’t get their work in places where it needs to be seen. It can be intimidating. Luckily, I have met some amazing people who helped me negotiate the world of my work and the editorial world that it needed to live in. My first assignment was “Drugs in the Blood”, part of my Brooklyn work, for the New York Times Magazine. It was a real life changing experience. It was like speaking two languages at once. Luckily Kathy Ryan was an astute interpreter and it gave me the confidence to go on.



Anthony being born, 2004. This birth marked the beginning of my “Upstate Girls” project.

 SB. Where are you in the stories you photograph?

BAK. I am in the story. My voice is being heard. I write from my personal experience. If I am a reporter I report what I see and I use words. A lot of great print journalist, like john Anderson from The New Yorker, write from a personal prospective so I don’t see any difference when doing visual reporting.

SB. You are one of the Facing Change photographers. What are America's most urgent issues to be photographed and preserved for the history and why?

BAK. The growing economical and social desperation in US is something I have been looking at for the past seven years in my work from Upstate NY and connecting this income gap back to the Victorian era when it was the time of haves and have nots. The most damaging thing in the US is the illusion of a classless society. These are the myths that Facing Change, and in fact documentary photography historically, have tried to dispel.

SB. In your opinion is documentary photography facing a change?

BAK. For sure, I feel that photography itself is becoming more youth oriented. I believe that is because of the link to technology. So the double-edged sword of change has more demarcating space as the old way to disseminate work is negated by the need for the younger, newer, more cutting edge methods, and that translates to youth. I used to be quite cocky in my thinking that the choice to be an artist or independent maker of content would give me a kind of immunity from the inherent disposability that workers experience under capitalism. the logic is, that since I do not have a "real job" then I can remain useful as long as i live - only my physical state can determine my retreat from the photo world. Now it feels as if this kind of practice is akin to working on an assembly line that is speeding up and soon will be obsolete. I am not saying that the content will not be necessary. In fact the media world is a growing beast that constantly needs to be fed content, but sadly it is the content makers that seem devalued. This dance with technology is of course one of the biggest challenges that the entire world faces when thinking about how it's population will earn a sustainable living as we move into a more automated future.

SB. Do you believe in the power of photojournalism for social change?

BAK. Yes. However the paths to get there are changing.