These Photos Will Change How You Look At Poverty In The U.S.

Photographs by Louisa Marie Summer.
There are over 45 million Americans living below the poverty line. Photographer Louisa Marie Summer has captured the story of one such family. In her book, Jennifer's Family, she photographed the highs and lows of the life of a 26-year-old Rhode Island woman, her partner, and their four kids. They've struggled with illness, money troubles, and incarceration, but at the center of the book is hope.

"I want my kids to be better than I was, you know, as a kid," Jennifer explains in the book. "I want them to finish school and do a lot of things really good." Throughout the book, she expresses an innate selflessness: her hopes for her mother, her love for her kids, and her desire to make things better for her extended family. She never asks for more for herself. Jennifer's story is unique, but at the same time, it's relatable to anyone who's struggled to find their place in the world.

Ahead, Summer talks about the inspiration for the project and her deep relationship with Jennifer and her family.

All photographs are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012. For a signed copy, please email Louisa Marie Summer at mail@louisasummer.com. “Jennifer’s Family” will be exhibited next at Kunstverein Viernheim in Germany; opening is Saturday, June 18, 2016. The exhibition will run until July 31, 2016.
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
What was your inspiration for this photo series?
"The book project Jennifer’s Family was initiated as I was pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, RI. I was both fascinated and irritated by the arching gap between the privileged and under-privileged, and I was curious to cross to the other side."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"I decided to focus on South Providence, an urban neighborhood with large African-American and Hispanic populations, which was experiencing high unemployment and crime rates... Many families live well below the poverty line. I ventured out to meet people who were affected by excessive foreclosures during 2008 to 2009. I wanted to peer beyond the home’s exteriors, ask questions about the kind of people living there, and how they managed to survive."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
Can you tell us a bit about your first encounter with Jennifer? Did you immediately know that you wanted to photograph her and her family?
"On one of my early visits to South Providence, I saw Jennifer’s children playing hide-and-seek in their backyard. After I had been watching them for a while, they asked me to join their game. Like most caring mothers, Jennifer was hesitant and wondered why this person, who was so obviously a stranger, was talking to her kids. As soon as I started to speak with my German accent, however, she understood that I was not from the area and certainly not a policewoman. I introduced myself, my research plans, and my photographic work, and she became less suspicious. Half an hour into our first conversation, I followed Jennifer into her apartment and was allowed to take my first picture. A few days later, I knocked on her door — the phone number she had given me didn’t work — and heard the kids scream, 'Mom, it’s the photographer!'"
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"I kept going back to see the family, even after I already had a few good pictures, without really knowing why. I had a gut instinct that this story would be something worth sharing with others — I knew I had to spend more time with this particular family. Since those early encounters, I ended up spending several hours, days, and even years with Jennifer, her family, and their inner circle of friends, while along the way, we ultimately developed a close relationship."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
How do they compare to other families in South Providence?
"South Providence is a rough neighborhood, where 'white and black don’t mix on the street,' as Jennifer’s Uncle Pokey says; people hang around and do their small businesses. Jennifer’s family was just one out of many other families who share a similar lifestyle. Right after the book was published, they moved to a different neighborhood."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"As a result of this project, I have come to appreciate the social and open manner of these families and learned how their social network effectively supports their lives. Becoming part of these supportive relations gave me a sense of reciprocation; they allowed me to take pictures while I helped them in multiple ways, such as driving them to run errands, to visit family, taking the kids to the park, etc."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
You talk about Jennifer's optimism in the face of difficult living conditions. What did that look like on a daily basis? What were her biggest struggles?
"What became deeply moving for me was Jennifer’s positive attitude, the love she expressed toward her own and others’ children, and the trust and warmth they then offered to me. Also, I was very impressed by their willingness to accept me within their family, both as a person and as a photographer, which would then support my creative work."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"Jennifer’s biggest struggle has been having to deal with her health problems, weight issues, and sleeping narcolepsy in addition to having to care for sometimes up to eight or nine children at her home. She was also frequently willing to care for her sister-in-law’s four children, plus the neighbor’s kids."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
What aspects of their life surprised or affected you the most?
"At first, I was overwhelmed by the family’s chaotic way of living. It became a challenge to also balance my photographic work with the demands that friendship brings along."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"When I started this project, both Jennifer’s youngest daughter and my sister’s child were each three years old, and it certainly became confusing to see such different ways of raising children. I was most affected by the fact that what is normal for them wouldn’t be normal for me, and the other way around. I felt a lot of tension, contradictions between what the family would say against how they would act in everyday life."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
How did your relationship change with the family over the course of two years? Did it change the way you photographed them?
"As a close friend, and finally becoming almost...family, I became a trustworthy contact for them. I discussed many personal and emotional issues with Jennifer, and I became confident and happy that we both learned from each other."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"I wouldn’t say that the way I photographed changed over time. I was able to capture incredibly intimate pictures from the very start. Actually, it became harder to make interesting pictures of the same subjects in the same space. However, I started to shoot more video during the last winter."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
How do the kids deal with the environment? Do they even realize they are living in poverty? How did they feel about being photographed?
"It’s especially difficult for the kids to grow up under these circumstances because of the chaos, constant level of noise, and incessant distractions. There is no room for Keana, Jennifer’s oldest daughter, to withdraw and relax. She has ADHD, which is probably exacerbated by the way the family lives. Providing her with more attention and private space would likely make her less of a 'wild' child."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
"I don’t think the kids realize they live in poverty, since the situation seems similar and therefore normal compared to everyone in their neighborhood. They have the basics they need, so in some ways they don’t live in 'real' poverty.

"Like many children, they love being photographed and are always happy when I bring prints on my visits. It became a confidence-building gesture for them when I would show pictures and explain the way I work, including them in my work process."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
Which of your images has stuck with you the most? Why?
"It’s hard to say, but one of my favorite images is of the Valentine scene of Jennifer holding the stuffed animal frog while arguing with her partner, Tompy. This illustrates that she was almost still a teenager when dealing with her partner, her kids, and their everyday life."
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Photos are from the book Jennifer's Family by Louisa Marie Summer, Schilt Publishing, 2012.
Did the project change the way you think about poverty? How?
"Working within Jennifer’s family forced me to understand the complexities of impoverished life and how difficult it is to escape within the vicious cycle of poverty."
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