Photographer Captures Stark Portraits Of Hunger In a new exhibit, Michael Nye reveals black-and-white portraits of people who have suffered from hunger. He spent days with each subject — including a homeless mother of two — and distilled their stories into a single image and a five-minute sound clip.
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Photographer Captures Stark Portraits Of Hunger

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Photographer Captures Stark Portraits Of Hunger

Photographer Captures Stark Portraits Of Hunger

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In these hard times, countless people have experienced deep losses - of their jobs, their savings, their homes and with those losses, can come hunger. It may be the least visible loss, but it's powerfully felt.

Artist Michael Nye has been documenting the faces and voices of hunger those who are newly hungry, others who have experienced hunger all their lives, some who have known it temporarily but unforgettably. Nye's new exhibition, "About Hunger," is on display at San Antonio's Witte Museum.

Independent producer Mary Beth Kirchner sampled the exhibit. It combines photographs with interviews Nye recorded of his subjects.

Unidentified Man #1: It's very hard to describe the physical aspects of the hunger. It's like you have a lion in your stomach that wants to be fed.

Unidentified Man #2: You start thinking of schemes on how to come up with food. And your mind is taking pictures of banana cream pie and cheesecake and steak.

Unidentified Woman: When you're hungry, bedtime is the worst time. Everything is quiet and you have nothing to do but think. And when you're hungry, it's hard to think about anything else but food. I just cry.

Ms. MARY BETH KIRCHNER (Independent Producer): Michael Nye spent almost five years traveling the U.S., collecting these experiences of hunger. He's a former lawyer turned fine arts photographer who uses an old eight-by-ten view camera to take his black-and-white portraits. Nye says he's also part reporter, part anthropologist, who's both haunted and inspired by the stories of his subjects.

Mr. MICHAEL NYE (Artist): Hunger is a whole lot like an iceberg. The mass of it is underwater, invisible I think nine-tenths of it. And I've heard so many people talk about the experience like a glass wall disconnecting them from the rest of the world.

Unidentified Man #3: Hunger is not missing a meal. Hunger is you go to bed hungry, you wake up hungry and you're hungry all the next day and you go to bed again hungry. I've heard people going to restaurants and say, look, I'm going to get this because I'm starving. They don't know what starving is.

Ms. KIRCHNER: Michael Nye spends up to four days with each subject, documenting stories and taking photographs. For the exhibit, he distills the encounter to a single image and five minutes of sound. Nye says it's a slowly revealing process, like unwinding a ball of string.

Mr. NYE: Once you start listening, you find that it's really about ourselves. It's not about those people, but it's about, you know, about humanity.

HELEN(ph): I've had many times where I've had no food at all. I've had times when I've gone into the grocery with my purse and stole a bag of baloney. How do you explain that? Getting up the courage to walk in and do it? Being so hungry, it destroys your will. You look in the mirror, and you don't know who you are.

Ms. KIRCHNER: Helen - Nye uses only first names - is an artist who was in a serious collision with a truck several years ago. Afterwards, she was unable to work and ended up living in her car.

Michael Nye calls these the stories of our neighbors, of their aging or addiction or mental illness, of natural disasters or accidents, or bad luck that can lead to hunger.

Nye's exhibit includes a portrait of a woman who experienced hunger while she was locked in a closet for three days - an escapee of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, an incest survivor who stopped eating to try starving herself to death.

And then, Nye says, there are the stories of all the children who have no choice in the matter and who go hungry on a daily basis.

KATHY(ph): How do you explain to a 2-year-old or a 4-year-old there's nothing to eat? All they know is that they're hungry and the pain in their stomach. And you try to sit there and say, honey, I'm sorry. I don't have anything to cook you. I have nothing to give you. I have nothing. And they don't stop.

Ms. KIRCHNER: Michael Nye's photograph of this homeless mother, Kathy, is a circle image of her face with her hands resting lightly on her cheeks. Her eyes are piercing with an intensity and a resolve, Nye says, to break the spiral of hunger.

The exhibit's galleries are dimly lit. Each portrait has its own spotlight and a pair of headphones. Nye says visitors often sit on the floor, lost in the stories behind the faces that hang above.

Alejandro(ph) tells of a vivid memory from his childhood in Texas.

ALEJANDRO: I remember it was summer, it was hot and it was dry and dusty. We had a big country. It was so glorious and majestic and strong and healthy. I remember it that it was going to be lunch and there wasn't any food in the house. My sister gathered us and she said that we were going to gather pecans for lunch. Luckily, for our sake, she had made a game of it. We each got like a mayonnaise jar and everybody is randomly cracking their pecans.

And I remember going back inside and she came back out with these plates and salt. And it was like we were going to eat a steak. I was starving, and my sister was caring for us.

Ms. KIRCHNER: Artist Michael Nye.

Mr. NYE: One of the premises behind this project is a profound belief that everyone knows something that no one else knows a wisdom about hunger. I hope this exhibit is not just about making noise but about making things better, to see hunger as it is without any illusion. And I think it's easier then to take it on and look for solutions.

Unidentified Woman #2: I work so hard every single day. My friends at work, I'm sure they don't know. You know, the last time I was hungry was this morning. The last meal I missed was lunch. The reason I'm not on welfare and the reason that I don't get food stamps is because I know that I'm going to be able to shake this. This is not my life. This is not me. This is temporary. And someday, I'm not going to have to worry about these kinds of things.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Our story came from independent producer Mary Beth Kirchner.

Michael Nye's exhibition is touring the country. You can also see his photographs and hear some of the stories he chronicled at

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