The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Local News

April 3, 2014

The picture of hunger

Photo exhibit shows how common it is

SHARON — “Listening itself is an act of kindness,” said Michael Nye, whose “Hunger and Resilience” photo exhibit opens today in downtown Sharon.

Nye is convinced that visitors to the free show will gain an incredible sense of the commonality of hunger and the strength through which people deal with life’s issues. He spent 4 1/2 years photographing 50 “subjects”, people who were struggling with hunger or had struggled and found a way out.

Each dimly lighted, black and white image has a five-minute message, spoken by the person in the photo, an element that Nye believes brings an understanding that cannot be gained by listening to “experts” speak about hunger.

“These are very substantial stories about who they are. How they came into hunger and how they left it. Behind all of it, I believe everyone has a wisdom about life that only they have. The people in these photos are the teachers. Those who pick up the headphones and listen are the students,” said the 65-year-old lawyer-turned artist and philosopher.

Meant to raise awareness of hunger, Nye was asked by the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County to bring his nationally known exhibit to the James E. Winner Jr. Arts and Culture Center in Sharon from April 3 to May 5.

His exhibit has traveled the country and each time, Nye said, viewers come away with the impression that “we weave in and out of humanity, finding that we have a lot more in common than we suspect.”

The stereotypical view of hunger, Nye said, is that of someone begging on the corner for food. “And we look at them and we think, ‘Well, they look healthy. Why don’t they get a job or three jobs like I have and help themselves? But the answer is not that simple. The issue is not that simple,” he said.

“The reasons for hunger are legion and anxiety has spiked since formerly middle-class workers have lost jobs and homes. How close to food insecurity are more families than to the margin of sustainability?” Nye said.

His show, he said, is not about suffering. “It’s about allowing these people to contribute something. They want to add meaning to life. I think it’s about a shared fragility.”

The idea for a show about hunger stemmed from a project he did about mental illness. “And I kept hearing a lot about hunger issues then,” he said.

As he traveled the country looking for participants, he said he was struck by the long list of problems that led to hunger. “I saw mental illness, I saw drug addiction, I saw injures and old age and a lack of education and a loss of jobs. I saw teen pregnancy, felonies and cancers, and I saw thousands and thousands of children who went to bed each night hungry because there simply was nothing to eat.”

“It’s not something simple. It’s a profound happening across this country,” he said.

Mimi Prada, public relations director for the food warehouse, said she was “in awe” of the scope and reach of Nye’s project and was thrilled when he agreed to come to Sharon. The warehouse will hold its annual “Empty Bowls” fundraiser on April 9 and will tie Nye’s exhibit to that event, she said.

Nye said he is always surprised when people ask him where to find “the hungry.”

“I had a company from New York call me and ask me if they could hire me to help them find the hungry. I’m stunned by that. Hunger is everywhere,” he said.

“I had friends when they heard I was working on a project involving hunger say to me ‘What country are you working in, Michael?’ What country? Are you kidding me?”

Nye himself has never personally experienced hunger, he said, not in the way those in the show have.

One participant in Nye’s show describes hunger as “your belly rubbing against your backbone.” They tell of the experience of desperation, the loss of vitality and daily deep depression,” he said.

Lori Weston, executive director of the food warehouse, said she was “awestruck” by the power and emotion captured in Nye’s art.

“As a nation, we often overlook the struggles that plague us on our home front. Hunger is a tangible issue that burdens our friends, co-workers and families. Nye’s artistry can set help set the change we need into motion.”

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