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Sidewalks with Tom Deignan
Putting Teen Pregnancy in Focus
September 10, 2008
Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
WHEN vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin shocked the world and announced that her 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, Erin Patrice O’Brien had a unique perspective on the issue.
The Irish American photographer had just completed a long journey into the heart of teen pregnancy in New York City. O’Brien –- whose middle name is a feminized version of Ireland’s patron saint, a nod to her father Joseph Patrick, who was born on March 17 –- had spent the last two years among pregnant teens in Brooklyn and Queens.
“I had just had my own daughter,” O’Brien said. “I got to wondering, ‘How does a teenager do this?’ It’s hard enough doing it as an adult.”
The photos became part of a much-acclaimed exhibit that ran at a Brooklyn gallery through the end of August entitled Mamas Adolescentes.
O’Brien (who was born in Media, Pennsylvania, just west of Philly) has made a big name for herself in the world of photography. Her work has appeared in major publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Times and Newsweek. She has also shot countless A-list celebrities, including Irish notables such as Frank McCourt and Senator George Mitchell.
O’Brien said it was her glamorous celebrity work which indirectly led her to Mamas Adolescentes.
“I do shoot a lot of celebrities and a lot of them are demanding, pretty superficial people,” O’Brien said. “I wanted to do a long term project about real people (who) I didn’t think were being represented in the media.”
In the end Mamas Adolescentes profiled five expecting teens, all of them Mexican American, at different stages of their pregnancy.
“I went into this with a curiosity about teen pregnancy, but what it became was more of an anthropological imprint of Mexicans living in New York,” she said.
O’Brien got to know her subjects so well that in addition to photographing them, she also brought them basic necessities such as diapers.
The photos (you can see them at erinpatriceobrien.com) are striking in their depiction of devoted women who are -– sometimes barely — keeping their heads above water.
Ethnic pride is clear. In one photo an infant lies swaddled on a blanket designed in the style of a Mexican flag. Another depicts a new mom who has decided to go back to school -– the ninth grade.
Indeed, poverty is clearly lingering in many of these photos. O’Brien fears not many of these girls are going to break the cycle of poverty.
Some people, of course, may grumble that today’s immigrants are just having babies and show no interest in becoming Americans. That, of course, is what was said about the Irish for decades.
O’Brien herself comes from “a big Irish Catholic family” of Ryans, Buckleys, Concannons and Dalys, whose members, she says, include former bootleggers and a congressman.
“Being Irish was definitely a big part of growing up,” she says.
In at least one important way, O’Brien’s exhibit provides a stark contrast to the debate over Bristol Palin. People like the Palins will always have a financial safety net that O’Brien’s subjects simply do not have.
O’Brien does, however, believe her subjects have at least one thing in common with middle and upper class teens who become pregnant.
“The girls I photographed had no knowledge of sex education,” she said. “A lot didn’t know they were pregnant for three or four months. I think that’s what happened with Bristol Palin.”
When the news about Sarah Palin’s daughter broke, O’Brien said, “My first impression was: ‘I’m sure McCain didn’t know she was pregnant.’”
McCain reportedly did know, but, with a laugh, O’Brien says, “I don’t believe him.”
O’Brien even questions the VP candidate herself, who just gave birth to a child with Down syndrome.
“She just had a special needs child a month premature, her daughter is pregnant … It doesn’t seem to me like the VP is going to be a 40 hour a week job.”
All of these questions of teen motherhood, sex ed and career responsibilities will continue to rage. For now, it is to O’Brien’s credit that in her photos of the latest wave of New York immigrants facing a monumental challenge, she is able to illustrate both the adversity and determination.
(Contact Tom firstname.lastname@example.org)
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