While University of Utah senior Ben Fulton was on an assignment at Marillac House, a shelter for battered and homeless women, a boy who was living there fell out of a tree and broke his arm.
The shelter director, interrupting her conversation with Fulton in order to assist the child, explained that the mother is schizophrenic and doesn't watch the child closely. Like many interviews Fulton conducted for his unusual communication course, this visit went nowhere.Nevertheless, by the end of autumn quarter, a dozen students in Communication 233, "photojournalism," had compiled impressive photo documentation on Utah's disadvantaged children and the programs that are meant to assist them. They'd also ventured into the unfamiliar world of poverty and homelessness.
Twenty-four photographs taken during the course, which was taught by Craig L. Denton, associate professor of communication, are on display at the Showcase Gallery in the Olpin Union through Feb. 1. The gallery is open weekdays 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
One highlight of the exhibit is a picture by Boone Chen showing a homeless girl giving a bottle to her 7-month-old half-brother. "Both children have incredible faraway stares, as if that defines their world," says Denton. Another photograph by Scott Sines captures the relationship between a coach and boxer at the Salt Lake Boxing Center in Liberty Park, a facility that helps gang members redirect their lives.
Before the class started, the Lowell Bennion Community Service Center at the U. contacted agencies that work with children and prepared a list of those willing to cooperate. The agencies will receive student photographs for use in their own communication efforts.
Denton modeled the course after the famous Farm Security Administration photography project that documented the plight of dust bowl farmers during the Depression. The students didn't just photograph whatever they saw. They looked for pictures that would make a statement. "We went in with a point of view that there's a social problem out there that needs correction," he says.
Fulton recalls that Denton warned students the first day that the class would be a lot of work. They had to turn in one roll of pictures a week and keep journals about what they saw and felt. They also wrote 50- to 200-word captions for many of their pictures.
"He told us, `If you don't have time for this, if you don't care about poverty, if you have feelings of social Darwinism, maybe you should drop the class,' " says Fulton. Some students did.
Sines, a sophomore, says his most interesting experience was becoming acquainted with a family of six who were living in the Salt Lake Community Shelter. The children were ages 14, 7, 6 and 3.
The father "was a big, very passive guy who wouldn't hurt a flea," Sines recalls. After being in the military several years, the father was told his Army job had been eliminated. The family returned to his parents' home in Arizona and later traveled to Idaho to investigate a possible job opening.
They decided against the Idaho job and headed south again. Then they were robbed of all their money. When they telephoned the father's parents, they were stunned at the reception. "We hope your car has heat," the parents replied. Because the family had converted to the Mormon faith, they thought they'd find the most support in Salt Lake City.
"They were very willing to be photographed and have their story told," says Sines. One distraction was that the children were "continuously sick" from coughs and colds picked up from other children in the shelter.
Ultimately, the family was assigned to transitional housing. Both parents got jobs at Snowbird. However, they have to find their own housing within three months, and Sines is afraid they won't be able to save enough money by then for rent and a deposit.
Although the class is over, Sines is in regular contact with the family. "I'm going to follow up," he says.
Fulton says the experience that most affected him was photographing a family of five he met near the North Temple viaduct. They were living in a car. The father apparently was an alcoholic.
"He said he was waiting for a friend to join him for a drink," says Fulton. "The back of the car was full of bottles, . . . and the kids were playing while the mother stood there with a helpless look."
Students in the course confronted the classic journalistic conflict between privacy and the public's right to know. "You can't go in and say, '`I'm here to take pictures of disadvantaged children in the most poignant, heart-tugging setting possible,' Fulton said. "You have to show respect."
He concluded, however, that "if there's an important issue - like how alcohol affects families, how poverty affects families - it's okay to invade their privacy if they give permission."