Photographers Capture Spirit of Kids in Need of Homes

Aug. 12, 2005 — -- In city after city, many of the finest photographers in the country -- some of whom command thousands of dollars for a portrait or an ad -- have worked for free on a project that became a labor of love.

Their job was to coax out the best in hundreds of children whose lives could change because of the impact of one photograph. The children are all in foster care. The purpose behind the project, called the Heart Gallery, is to help find families for them by using professional photographers to personalize them -- to bring out the spirit and individuality that are all too often invisible in the typical shots that accompany the children's files once they have entered the foster care system.

"They look like mug shots," said David Bergman, a Sports Illustrated photographer who was one of the volunteers. "You can't really get a glimpse into a child's personality, or you really don't know anything about them by looking at those pictures."

As the photographers discovered, many of the children they have documented are desperately in need of change.

Photojournalist Najlah Feanny noticed one child who was resisting having his photo taken. "And I came to find out ... that he had been in seven foster homes in his seven or eight years of life. And he'd been abused in all of them."

Feanny, who has traveled the world on assignments, was stunned by what she discovered near her own hometown in New Jersey. "You find out this kid lives five miles from your house. And somebody starved him."

Working with Pim Van Hemmen of the Newark Star-Ledger, Feanny became the irresistible force who helped assemble a who's-who of 150 photographers with the goal of shooting every one of the more than 300 foster children in the state of New Jersey who are legally available for adoption.

The pictures eventually were mounted for display in gallery exhibits in New Jersey, to encourage prospective parents to think about adoption. The Star-Ledger began a series of profiles of the children.

Billy was one of the children who was enthusiastic about having his portrait taken (child care authorities have asked that the last names of children cited in this article not be used). He is 14 years old, and has been in foster care for nearly 10 years. He would be delighted to be discovered by a family.

"I'd be happy more than anything," he said, "because I could finally go home … and make some friends I can actually stay with for a while."

What may have begun as a way of helping a good cause became a mission for many of the photographers.

Martin Schoeller is a world-famous photographer known for his close-up portraits of celebrities. "The thing that changed me most," he said, "is the sense that I got from a lot of those kids. They want nothing else more than having parents."

One of Schoeller's Heart Gallery assignments was to shoot Courtney and Vincent, siblings who live apart in foster care. Schoeller knew that one of the hoped-for results from the photos is to get siblings adopted together into the same family. He wanted something that showed their relationship. And he worked hard to get it.

"Vincent's sister [Courtney] was very laughing and giggly, and would always kind of cuddle up to her big brother. And he was very stoic and sincere looking."

So the "secrets" to which Schoeller resorted were the ones familiar to a lot of moms and dads. He laughed. He cajoled. He picked up Vincent and turned him upside down. And he got the shot he wanted, of Vincent and Courtney together, relaxed and smiling. "Old techniques," Schoeller laughed. "Nothing new."

Erica Berger shoots for People magazine. "The most important thing for me when I was working with them was to try to figure out very quickly what their mood was and then go with that," she said. "I had a little girl who was jumping all around. She's 4 years old, beautiful. So we took her in the ladies room and just let her look at herself in the mirror, and so everything just happened naturally."

Bergman went for action photos. "I just tried to get them to play," he said. "Then they kind of forget about the camera and the lights and all the people standing around, and I can capture them in a fun moment."

Joyce Tenneson, who has authored 10 books on photography and is known for her intimate portraits, gave priceless advice to her subjects: how to make a good impression.

"Don't be shy about your smile," Tenneson told Stephanie as she showed the 13-year-old how to open up her posture and body language. "You have to be accepting of yourself and have confidence that who you are is good enough. You don't have to hide."

In a moment of reflection after the photo session, Tenneson said, "You feel their destiny somehow hanging there, in the desire that someone will see that picture and fall in love."

"I was stunned at the emotional level of some of these children having just met a photographer and an hour later saying, 'Please don't leave me,'" said Feanny. "One little girl said, 'This is the best day of my life.' "

The idea for the Heart Gallery originated in 2001 in Santa Fe, where a local photographer suggested it to Diane Granito of the New Mexico Youth and Families Department. Granito arranged for the children to be photographed. Space was donated by the prestigious Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, and 1,200 people showed up on opening night.

Walking into the room, Granito said, "You see dozens of children looking out at you. And you realize that the only thing that they are asking for is something that we take for granted: a loving family. It's really powerful."

Granito's pioneering exhibits inspired 60 Heart Gallery organizations in 45 states. In some places, the adoption rate after an exhibit is more than double the nationwide rate of adoption from foster care. A Parade magazine article about Granito in 2005 moved Feanny to recruit for a New Jersey Heart Gallery.

There also have been critics who worry that the concept could be interpreted as marketing the foster children. "That's an understandable concern," said Granito. "But my take on the Heart Gallery is really that it's not marketing children, it's marketing the idea of adopting from foster care."

"My mother was a social worker," said photographer Erica Berger. "I see what happens when children aren't brought out where people can see them. People forget about them. And this way, everybody can see what these children look like and they can't forget about it." Berger added, "I think that it's easy for a lot of people to criticize in that way, but no one has offered up any better alternative."

One of the unforgettable photographs that inspired an adoption was taken for the Santa Fe Heart Gallery by Debbie Fleming Caffery. It is a study of three sisters named Vicky, Jannae and Vanessa who dressed up for the picture in fairy tale princess costumes. At the time, in 2001, the girls were 9, 8, and 5 years old and had already lived in seven different foster care homes.

Drew and Melinda Somerville, who had raised six children of their own, immediately responded to it.

"It wasn't just a face on a poster or face in a photograph," said Drew Somerville. "These were children. These were human beings. They were people that you could relate to and emotionally tie to with that photograph."

And after meeting the girls, the Sommervilles adopted them. No one pretends it's a simple process.

"Some of the children need a little more counseling, a little more support," said Granito. "And the children have different behavioral issues that are discussed during training that [parents] are provided free of cost. when they adopt through a state agency like ours [The New Mexico Children Youth and Families Department]. But all we want is someone who is willing to be dedicated to a child, to take the support that we offer to help the child settle in and just give the child a loving home."

"They were coming into a house where they were expected to do things, and had structure," said Melinda Somerville. "They had basically been just left on their own. That's been a hard adjustment for them, and we do have struggles with that."

But after more than three years, everyone seems to have made the adjustment. The Somerville daughter who still is young enough to remain at home, 11-year-old Allison, also had encouraged the adoption, hoping for more playmates. And Vicky, Jannae and Vanessa know they will finally come home to the same place every day after school, and that they can think about the future. They now have a family who'll watch them graduate from school, get a first job and get married.

Before, said Jannae, "I didn't really have any dreams." Now she hopes to become a teacher. "When I went to the Heart Gallery, I met my parents."

Nationwide, nearly 130,000 of the half-million foster children are available for adoption. There is a term for those who never find a family. It's called "aging out." Children who aren't adopted by the age of 18 are simply released into the world, to do the best they can.

"I have seen children who are just waiting, very patiently," said Diane Granito. "I can say that they really are my heroes. … And I just really wish people would give them a chance."