In 2006 I was invited to attend the graduation event for the women of New Directions for Women. NDFW was an alternative-to-in- carceration program located in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, where I also live. I was very moved by the short speeches given by the women who spoke of their year at NDFW, their previous years spent in prisons in Pennsylvania, and what turns in life got them into the prisons.
I made a note to myself that, if or when I had time, this would be a place I would like to volunteer.
Be careful what you wish for.
In 2007 I was laid off from the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I had worked for twenty years as a photojournalist. In 2009 I found myself at New Directions for Women in a basement room, with long tables, folding chairs, and green walls. Around the table were about fourteen women, all of whom wished they were upstairs where the TV had afternoon soap operas playing. Maybe they wished they were in their rooms napping. But here we were, and it was up to me to provide enlightenment.
I have a history of people coming to me from the “bad bench.” From 1971 until 1978 I was a teacher in Bellows Falls, Vermont. I was running a special classroom in an unused locker room in the basement of the middle school. There, students were sent to me from the classrooms they had been kicked out of. My career became one of working with the students normally spending their days on the “bad bench” in the principal’s office. It was a mutual attraction between the bad kids and me.
Not too big a stretch to see myself happy in a crowd of ex-felons. Every week when I arrived at NDFW, I brought a bag of fresh fruit. The women ate the grapes and oranges and I read aloud from The Diary of Anne Frank, Three Cups of Tea, and Alice in Wonderland. We did word and number puzzles and learned to read a map. One day I approached the director of NDFW and asked if I could make photographs there. Then I asked the women and they agreed. Twice a year we did formal portraits so they could send home photographs of themselves to family to show how good they looked now.
I was allowed to come and go and join in as I pleased. I stayed for dinner, watched while they scrubbed the floors and walls. I joined in my first NA and AA meetings. As Myra said to me, “You know, Miss Hinda, if you just got arrested, you could move in here.”
Linda graduated in late 2009. Her addiction was gone. During her time at NDFW she was awarded all sorts of privileges because she worked hard, got a job, and commuted to the work site and back faithfully. Such a hard worker too; everyone wanted Linda on the job. We kept in touch. Until she disappeared. She was not answering her phone.
Concetta arrived in 2010. Concetta could sew and fix bicycles. I drove her to her first apartment, with her son carrying the sewing machine. She settled in, her younger daughter sometimes on the couch, her son sometimes bringing his son for a visit. And then Concetta disappeared too. Adriana, her younger daughter, took me with her to visit Concetta at Riverside Correctional Facility. Linda called. She was out of jail. She says she was in the car when her brother committed a robbery. Back and forth; in and out. We stayed in touch as we could.
But then, in 2018, Concetta was in her own apartment on Erie Avenue and Linda was living with her stepmother in the Kensington neighborhood. I was happy to see their new resolve to keep clean and work hard and stay out of prison. Linda worked at a diner in the heart of the heroin and opioid drug trade in Philadelphia. Every day (and she worked seven days a week) she walked past the swaying shells of people, the dropped needles, and the offers to buy. She kept walking.
Concetta made places in her small apartment for her two daughters and granddaughter: Shakira on the floor, Concetta on the couch, and Adriana and the infant Brielle in the bedroom. It was family life: TV shows, laundromat trips, getting meals together. Concetta was an anchor to her children and the neighborhood.
Linda worked at the diner and was trying to get her mother and brother off heroin, while keeping herself safe and busy.
I went to the diner to see Linda at work and visited her at her stepmother Catherine’s. Linda’s mother, Maryann, lived there too for a while, along with Catherine’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandson.
I went shopping with Concetta for food and went along to the laundromat. I met her friends at outdoor barbecues, which she hosted for the neighborhood. At first people were a bit suspicious of me, and why not? I had a big camera. But Linda and Concetta both made it clear that I was OK. I could be trusted. And I brought photographs for all, and the pictures were free.
It’s 2022 now. Concetta has decided the quiet life is best. She isn’t out on the streets much after dark. She has a new boyfriend with a steady job. She needs some knee surgery but has put that off, since Covid is an issue and her diabetes has kept her from being cleared for surgery.
Linda has moved twice, each time further from the epicenter of the drug crisis. She and her boyfriend, Karlos, have a rented house that is clearly a home. Sometimes she and Karlos are together and sometimes not. Linda started a lawn-care business while working steadily as an aide for a woman with dementia. She was laid off from the health-aide job during the Covid pandemic. She then was hired at a pizza takeout restaurant, got a catering job, and is now an assistant manager at Primo’s, a sandwich chain.
Since the pandemic, my image making has tapered. In 2022 I photographed Concetta’s fifty-first birthday party. And sadly, I attended the funeral for Linda’s mother and photographed at the graveside.
Concetta and Linda are two amazing women whom I feel honored and delighted to have as strong connections in my life. Concetta calls me her “white mom,” which I find endearing. We keep in touch via text messages and phone calls and occasional visits. I love them both.
Hinda Schuman is a documentary photographer, photojournalist, and educator. She spent twenty years at the Philadelphia Inquirer covering regional news and sports. Prior to her career at the Inquirer, she taught reading and other subjects to students in grades one through eight in Vermont. Hinda was the volunteer coordinator for the Brattleboro (VT) Area Women’s Crisis Center, assisting women who were fleeing their abusers. She also worked as a counselor at a group home, baked bread in a factory, and built two houses from foundation to roof. After getting her MFA from Tyler School of Art and Architecture in 1985, she installed door knockers in an apartment building. A wonderful meeting with a pho- tography editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer led to her full-time position as a photojournalist. Her first book, Dear Shirley, was published by Daylight Books in 2018.