Reviewing a book built around photographs calls upon a slightly different skillset than does a text-only work. The difference, I believe is mainly a matter of pace. As I take up Jan Thrope’s book, Inner Visions: Grassroots Stories of Truth and Hope, I remind myself to linger on each photo and allow it to impact me fully. As a result, I find myself doing something I don’t do with other books: gazing at the cover for a good long while. In the photo Thrope has chosen for her cover, an African-American woman poses on a plot of land that appears to be in the process of being converted from a vacant lot to a neighborhood garden. Her white blouse is touched here and there by the soil she’s been working. In one arm, she holds two shovels. It occurs to me that perhaps the second shovel is for me – an invitation to take part in her struggle. Her free arm is flung upward, and her smiling face is turned heavenward. I imagine her praising God and seeking His blessing and assistance in her endeavor. As I slowly open the book, it is with the dual sense that in doing so, I am accepting the shovel – joining in on a worthy undertaking – and that this process will be to some extent a spiritual one.
I find that the Dedication, Foreword, and Introduction – pages I’m usually prone to breeze through – are, in this book, laden with meaning. Thrope uses this space to invoke a certain openness in her readers. She thanks us in advance for being willing “to see through others eyes.” It is clear to me from this very early point in the book that I am dealing with an author who recognizes the power of words to shape the reader’s experience. A wise guide, she is helping me to assume the proper attitude toward her work. In the same breath, she expresses appreciation for the people who are the subject of the book. She thanks them for “Their willingness to expose darkness to light so positive images can be developed.” This apt metaphor holds a warning – that her readers will encounter darkness – yet these words also reveal the process that will prove to be the book’s saving grace: the remarkable ability of this author to produce positive and inspiring messages out of that darkness.
Repeated images of butterflies in the opening pages of the book make me think of the ‘butterfly effect’ – how a simple, seemingly insignificant phenomenon (like the beating of a butterfly’s wing) can create a chain of cause-and-effect with ultimately momentous results. It strikes me as an instance of this principle in action that Thrope has captured many discrete, fleeting moments, each of which, taken alone, might seem practically meaningless, but which when gathered together with her admirable craft coalesce into a coherent portrait of poverty in action and of valiant efforts to overcome its many challenges – a portrait which possesses the power to inspire and motivate change – to have a real, positive impact on the world. Thrope writes of “the educational, employment, housing, health, nutrition, and legal” aspects of poverty. Clearly, she has developed an in-depth understanding. It is her gift to be able to make readily accessible to her readers this complex comprehension of her subject, and through the quality of her photographs to make it personal and human.
“Do You See What I See?” the author asks, as my eyes rest on a photograph of a homeless man begging for money. Do I see what Thrope sees? I ask myself, and I fear that the answer is “probably not.” But fortunately her arresting photographs are supported by words both poignant and informative. The text accompanying the photograph tells the story of a man whose pressing need is for clean clothing so that he can apply for a job. Where I might at first have seen bleak despair, Thrope has seen the hope of employment. With a little help, the man she writes of might change his situation for the better. Again and again in the course of this book, Thrope is able to give her readers such crucial understanding, to show us how with just a little help, lives can be profoundly altered.
Inner Visions approaches the problems poverty brings from many angles. Thrope takes her readers with her into a windowless inner city school where she tutors a 7-year-old boy named Rashawn, then proceeds to give us a harsh look at the neighborhood he calls home. As we take in this dark imagery, she calls upon us to remember the words of Ghandi: “You must make injustices visible.” In her own words, the author says she wants “to better understand how these images impact the foundational beliefs of a child in poverty.” She comes to understand the external world surrounding Rashawn as a mirror in which he sees himself reflected and which has a great impact on his beliefs about himself and the world.
Having given us a glimpse of the problem, Thrope moves on to focus on solutions. Investigating what resources are in place to help disadvantaged kids like Rashawn leads her to advocates and activists. We meet Ramone Foster, who mentors young students, attend a meeting of Mothers United Against Youth Violence, and feel the impact of the work of artist Donald Black Jr., who transforms dilapidated houses by covering them with motivational words. Her discussion of this admirable project broadens into public art in general, and she illustrates how artwork has the power to transform public spaces, creating a more inspiring atmosphere. Here, Thrope really hits her stride with the topic of public gardens. We see a vacant lot becoming an orchard and visit a chicken farm tucked between two storefronts.
The pattern the author establishes in the first half of the book is repeated several times in the second half. Again she shows us complex problems caused by poverty, again her photography and reportage effectively brings these problems to a personal level for us, and again she moves her focus to solutions in action. We are shown the multifaceted day-to-day struggles of several single mothers. We marvel at the perseverance of these impoverished women in the face of seemingly insurmountable hardship and celebrate their successes as Thrope shows us how with a little help – a transitional housing program, help getting a GED and vocational training or even a college degree – lives can be saved.
All proceeds from Inner Visions go to fund projects to improve life for residents of Cleveland. I haven’t even mentioned that this is a book about Cleveland! That’s probably because Thrope achieves an engagement with the issues arising from poverty which transcends locality. And she takes us places we would likely not otherwise go. We find ourselves behind the scenes in a homeless shelter. We talk to long-term victims of homelessness and learn how they scrape by. We visit food banks and learn dreadful statistics like that almost half of the people who use Cleveland’s hunger centers “have had to choose between paying a utility bill and paying for groceries.” For those of us who have a little left over at the end of the month, buying a copy of Inner Visions for twenty bucks from Amazon or Orange Frazer Press is a real value. Informative and moving, brave, insightful, and inspiring, this book is positive change in action. No wonder it won first place in non-fiction in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards!
Thrope is thorough. So much so that unlike most books in which photography is a large component, Inner Visions is not a flip-through kind of book. Rather, it is an exhaustive treatment of her topic. Each section is rich in facts and in personal detail. Visiting the health issues which go hand-in-hand with poverty, the author notes that obesity is caused in part by fast food being more accessible in some impoverished areas than healthier foods. She touches on high blood pressure, which can be caused by the stress of living on the financial edge and in unsafe conditions. She also discusses lead poisoning, which is more common in older, inner-city neighborhoods. We can rely upon Thrope, though, to develop the negatives into positives. She segues from run-down housing to reclamation and a project which carefully de-constructs abandoned houses, using the salvaged materials “to create up-scale flooring, tables, lamps, counter tops, bets, wine racks, etc.” – which is termed ‘up-cycling’.
The book’s final chapter – “Believing is Seeing” – continues to explore the ways in which creativity and positive thinking can lead to beneficial change. “The future is up to you,” one small business owner tells teens in her neighborhood. “If you want it to look different, you need to visualize a different picture and create it.” As a result, the teens paint a beautiful mural representing their neighborhood as “open to all and connected by a spiritual presence.” Thrope returns to the topic of successful public gardens and community kitchens, then forges on to the ambitious project of a woman named Barbara Anderson, who is working toward converting a vacant factory into a community center.
As Inner Visions draws to a close, Thrope devotes several pages to a program called Teen Enterprise, which is teaching teens business skills and even starting its graduates off with seed money to pursue business ventures. The book concludes with a profile of a very accomplished reformer named Yvonne Pointer – relating the personal hardships which led to her resolution to fight for change, and the impressive work she has since done to combat violence and strengthen community, including a program called Positive Plus, which helps women to improve themselves and their communities. The title of this final section is “No One is Too Small to Make a Big Difference” – a point which Pointer elucidates humbly and well, saying, “God is comical… He chooses people like me, because I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, to prove that what I do, anybody can do.” At the end of this stirring work, we are left feeling empowered to bring about change and instilled with a sense of great possibility. Thrope has taken us to dark places, but leaves us in the light.
Eugene Uttley 3/26/2013