Heart Gallery Exhibits Share Foster Possibilities

Sometimes a lens sees things that people miss. Sometimes it sees the subtle beauty in landscapes that would have vanished in a second through a car window. Sometimes it sees possibilities that otherwise might have gone unnoticed.

Through her lens, photographer Jackie Mathey saw possibilities in the form of a 10-year-old girl.

She was photographing Faye, who had lived in five foster-care homes. For most of the session, Faye was active and playful. The photo that most appealed to Mathey, though, was one in which the girl showed a reflective, solemn side.

"She did not show that side of herself to me until the second that I took that one picture," Mathey said. "But I chose that one because it showed her inner strength and her dignity and a really strong character that you sensed in her right away."

Through new collections of children's portraits in a project known as the Heart Gallery, tens of thousands of people have sensed the same range of possibilities that Mathey has seen.

In cities throughout America, art galleries and public spaces have mounted stunning exhibitions taken by some of the world's most famous photographers. The photographers work for free, using their talents to bring out qualities that otherwise might have gone undiscovered in children who are in foster care, hoping to be adopted by a family.

Mathey, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., was one of those photographers.

"It softens you up inside. … And it humbles you because you take for granted, what you have," Mathey said.

Santa Fe Exhibit Grows Into National Movement

The project has gained so much momentum that its founder prefers to describe it as a movement.

The idea originated five years ago in Santa Fe, where a local photographer suggested it to Diane Granito of the New Mexico Youth and Families Department.

Space was donated by the prestigious Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, which continues to host exhibits. Because older children are the most difficult to place with adoptive families, they are the focus of what the exhibits are about: improving the rate of adoption by humanizing the children and inviting prospective parents to view the results.

Before the Heart Gallery, the file photos of foster-care children were often compared to mug shots.

"All children are supposed to have a photograph in their file," Granito said. "And the photographs are the kind that you might get taken at school, where the child has his or her hair slicked back, and they're cropped in front of a fake backdrop. It doesn't express the individuality of the child at all. They're almost interchangeable."

Granito said that Heart Gallery exhibits created an immediate impact "when you walk into a room, and see dozens of children looking out at you. But the real magic happens when people take the time to stop and look into the eyes of each child, and stand there, talk with the child's social worker a little bit about the child, and actually apply to adopt the child -- because of the connection they felt with this portrait."

There are more than 80 Heart Gallery organizations in 40 states. In some places, the adoption rate after an exhibit is more than double the nationwide rate of adoption from foster care.

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