Past Exhibits: Invisible Neighbors

June-September, 2003

June-September, 2003

a neighbor
This is a photo documentary exhibit by Michael Schwalbe.

This exhibit features photographic portraits of thirty-eight current or former residents of family care homes in Wake, Orange, and Durham Counties of North Carolina. The exhibit also includes photographs of the homes, video interviews with operators, monitors, residents, and social workers, and artifacts related to the homes.

Statement by Michael Schwalbe

I first learned about family care homes a few years ago when a friend was seeking an alternative living situation for his elderly father. When I heard "care home," the image that came to mind was of a large, impersonal facility full of bedridden patients. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Family care homes, my friend explained, are small (six residents, at most), look like ordinary houses from the outside, and are located in urban areas, suburban neighborhoods, and the country. They're not for people who need skilled nursing, but for people who, because of physical or cognitive disabilities, need help with activities of daily living.

As a sociologist, I was intrigued. I envisioned each family care home as a world unto itself. I wondered what kinds of problems arose in a home, and how the people who lived and worked there dealt with those problems. How did they get along with each other? To fully explore such matters would have required a more elaborate study than I could undertake, in light of other commitments. Still, I wanted to learn about the homes and the people in them, and so I approached them as a documentary photographer.

With the help of social service agencies in Durham, Orange, and Wake Counties, I gathered lists of family care homes, as well as suggestions about which homes might be welcoming. I contacted operators, met with residents to explain my interests, and eventually photographed people at seven homes in the three Triangle counties (between October 1999 and December 2001).

The people I photographed are ethnically diverse and range in age from their mid 20s to early 80s. What they have in common is needing, temporarily

or for the long term, a little extra help to get by--a circumstance in which any of us might find ourselves some day.

As a photographer, I am drawn to making portraits because of the communicative power of posture, gesture, dress, and facial expression. In these portraits of family care home residents, I have tried to capture these and other signifying elements in ways that tell about thirty-seven unique individuals. I have also tried to make portraits that tell about people who, like all of us, strive to assert identity and feel at home in the world, while struggling with the body's vulnerabilities.

I extend my sincere thanks to the family care home residents who collaborated in making these photographs. As the portraits attest, these folks are not invisible, even if they often go unnoticed. The homes and the residents are our neighbors, and perhaps by taking time to see them we can see more about ourselves.

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