New South End Library Photo Exhibit of Ugandan Elders Highlights Dignity of Homeless/Landless Africans Despite Decades of Civil War and AIDS

A Ugandan Elder,  by photographer Jennifer Coplon

A Ugandan Elder, by photographer Jennifer Coplon

Ugandan Elders: JaJa Mamas and Papas, a photo exhibit that will open officially on Tuesday, November 20 at the South End Library,is the brainchild of Jennifer Coplon. A longtime South End resident and community-based clinical social worker, Coplon spent the last few years training to be a photographer as well, at MassArt, the MFA and the New England School for Photography. Last summer, a social-work trip to Uganda brought her face to face with the homeless/landless poor of Uganda. She encountered people who had suffered multiple losses from AIDS, malaria and civil-war trauma, elders for whom there was little likelihood of improvement in their economic circumstances.  Coplon was struck by their dignity, an observation that happened to interface with another passion of hers, creating positive images of the elderly homeless.  Coplon, whose work includes photographing and interviewing formerly homeless elders here placed in permanent housing through Hearth Inc., says that by developing a portraiture  focused on human dignity she hopes to counter the marginalization and discounting of our own elders: "When you look at this man here," she said, pointing to a portrait  of a Ugandan in a brilliant deep-blue garment,"you'd never guess he's dirt-poor."

There's recent precedent for the fusion of photography and homeless-centered social work on display in a library setting. Earlier this year, the San Francisco Public Library mounted the photo exhibit, Acknowledged, which featured portraits of the many homeless serviced by local agencies affiliated with their library system (San Francisco is quite advanced in this area: it is the first public library to have hired a social worker on its staff to deal with homeless patrons). Photographer Joe Ramos, who volunteered for the homeless, was handed a camera in 2006 and asked to tell the agencies' clients' story in portraits. His photographs and accompanying texts shone a light on the frayed social safety net, too close for many Americans, with examples like Ethel, a direct descendant of Abraham Lincoln, and Graham, a middle-class college graduate from Indiana who spiraled into depression, job loss and homelessness after a car accident he caused killed another person.

Jennifer Coplon's exhibit opens Tuesday, November 20, at 6:30 PM, at the South End Library. It is free to all.