In the photograph, a young man in a white tank top sits atop a toilet tank. The photo pulled me in, its inscription stopped me still.
“Russell is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, a father to his daughter and son, a student at Cal Berkeley double majoring in Anthropology and South and Southeast Asian Studies. Collectively, Russell’s tattoos signify his search for permanency…” – from Tribute, an exhibit of the Foster Youth Museum running through Friday at Pro Arts Gallery in Oakland.
Earlier this year, we covered the launch of the Foster Youth Museum and its inaugural exhibit, Lost Childhoods. Museum founder Jamie Lee Evans met me at Pro Arts Gallery to talk about Tribute: Foster Youth and Tattoos, its third exhibit. At first reluctant to bring in a non-foster youth to take portraits for Lost Childhoods, Jamie found herself won over by photographer Ray Bussolari’s approach. “He took time, he conducts interviews with the youth to really find out who they are…his photographs told the story so well.” The black and white photographs reveal the nuance of experiences and their presence. They seem neither hardened, nor innocent. Neither victims, nor exemplars. They do not hide themselves.
Jamie: In the process of photographing youth [for the first exhibit], Ray noticed their tattoos and he himself has tattoos. He started hearing their stories about them. So he said we should do a photography exhibit just on tattoos. It was a process of me reaching out to young people that I know (from all over California)… It’s not just about tattoos, it’s all about tattoos that came from the foster youth experience.
When I said ‘yes’ to this, it wasn’t just because Ray’s a great photographer, it was also because the tattoo/body art community is not necessarily a community that knows a lot about foster care. This would be an opportunity to reach to a whole new subset of people. And, we’re also reaching people interested in photography and art.
When I see the photographs I see depth… It brings you to understand foster youth in a depth-full way. What I want people to see is the beauty of these young people. A lot of people think foster youth are criminals, they’re invisible, they’re dead, they’re insignificant and ugly, they’re nothing to be proud of so let’s just not talk about them.
But in reality they are your neighbors and they are your friends, and they’re beautiful.
The Museum grew out of the Youth Training Project. It stands for Youth Offering Unique Tangible Help and began as a “collaboration between current and former foster youth (ages 16-24), child welfare professionals, and youth-serving organizations. We empower transition-age foster youth, who are experts in navigating the foster care system, to develop and deliver best-practice training for professionals who support transition-age youth.”
Jamie mentioned priority policy issues for foster youth advocates in California: 1) pushing back against over-medication of foster youth 2) helping separated siblings maintain their relationships 3) ensuring children of foster youth themselves are not separated from their parents.
Photos of original photos by Ray Bussolari. Exhibit runs through Friday, November 20 at Pro Arts Gallery, 150 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland, CA
Contact the Foster Youth Museum for exhibit rentals.