The Heart Gallery

“A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for foster children in New York City and across the country, a picture is worth improved self-esteem, and potentially, a new home and family.” These moving words from CNN refer to photographic portraits of foster children in the “Heart Gallery,” a traveling photo and audio exhibit that aims to find adoptive families for children in need of a home. Founded in 2001 by a professional photographer in New Mexico, the first “Heart Gallery” exhibition was so successful that Heart Gallery groups formed almost over-night across the U.S. to organize photography exhibits that have resulted in more than 5,000 children around the country finding their adoptive families.

This month, Duggal proudly lent our support to the Heart Gallery NYC and worked with Executive Director Laurie Sherman Graff to exhibit 100 oversized digitally printed portraits for their new show “Faces of Foster Care.” The show opened in November at the Amtrak Rotunda in Penn Station, with 4×5-foot enlarged portraits gently inviting viewers into their world while drawing attention to the mission of the organization: to help children living in foster care realize their dream of finding permanent, loving adoptive families to call their own.

Children in foster care come from some of the most heartbreaking cases of abuse, neglect and abandonment. Of the approximately half-million children who are in the U.S. foster-care system today, a quarter of that number are in immediate need of adoptive homes. Once these children age out of foster care at age 18, they have a higher rate than their peers to drop out of society and to enter a life of crime or as homeless adults. These statistics are shocking in as much as most of us never even hear about these children, let alone encounter their powerful gazes in high-trafficked areas like Penn Station. Channeling the power of portrait photography to mitigate this issue is what makes the Heart Gallery unique and tremendously successful. Founder Diane Granito found a family for the first three children she ever exhibited within an hour of displaying their pictures. “It was almost as if the country was waiting to be told these children are here because nobody really talked about them before,” says Granito.

The last 10 years of the Heart Gallery’s work has built a network of volunteer photographers who are notable in their talent for capturing poignant portraits. Celebrity photographers who actively support the Heart Gallery cause include Robert Ascroft, who has photographed Brad Pitt, Penelope Cruz and Mariah Carey, and Howard Schatz, whose subjects have included Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg and Brooke Shields. By inviting masters of portraiture who can sum up the essence of a child into a single portrait, the Heart Gallery enables each child the best shot at connecting with a potential family. Taking a good portrait is challenging even for the most experienced photographer, and when the responsibility of creating a portrait upon which the entire future of a child rests, it becomes a tall order. As photographer Barbara Bordnick states, “I was hoping I could make them feel comfortable and make them feel special—I wondered if I’d be able to do that,” adding that she “…wanted to get ‘them’ on film, not make them into anything.”

The exhibition on display at Penn Station includes works by photographers Martin Schoeller, James Salzano, Fiona Aboud, Michael Weschler, Bud Glick and Belenna Lauto. James Salzano, who photographs regularly for the Heart Gallery exhibits, comments on his experiences: “Getting photographers together with these children in a setting that they’re so unfamiliar with, but makes them feel so special is such a brilliant concept. This program gives a face to the issue in such a wonderful way; it really celebrates all of the children and young adults as celebrities. Displaying their portraits in the public venues further validates these subjects as more than kids needing families; it gives them a sense of dignity and I feel helps their self-esteem, as well. It makes art out of ‘call to action’ and that’s a real win-win for this program. I think the value to our society is far-reaching, as well. Whenever we can make someone aware of an issue, it goes beyond just helping those in need; it helps us all.”

Paul Lange, the celebrity photographer who counts Halle Berry, Tyra Banks and Oprah among his clients, remarks, “My whole career was fashion and beauty. The nice thing about it is, instead of selling a product, we’re campaigning for a person’s future. It spoke to me to give these kids an opportunity to get a foot up on the ladder.” Lange says his biggest surprise was the “genuineness” in the children’s expressions. “It’s like they’re saying, I’m a good person inside. Give me a chance. They’re dying for an opportunity for someone to step forward and take a chance on them,” he says.

Paul Lange says his biggest surprise was the “genuineness” in the children’s expressions.

Photography as a vehicle of social action fortunately has begun to play a powerful role in the world today. Translating photography into public art embedded with such a strong call to action is a very effective means of communicating about issues that otherwise would fall off our collective radar. Supporting this cause becomes transformative, both for the subject, as well as the photographer. As Salzano puts it, “I’ve found it to be such an extraordinary experience. They’re so appreciative of our efforts and want so much to be seen in the best way possible. I think they’re some of the most willing subjects I’ve ever had in front of my camera, and they’re all so invested in making the portrait successful—interestingly enough, not in a vain or self-absorbed way, but as sincere and hopeful people who so need to be a part of something they’re missing in their lives.”

“Faces of Foster Care” will travel throughout the five boroughs through airports, malls and public offices, touching the hearts of thousands who view it and hopefully connect the children with “forever homes.” The Heart Gallery has given all of us in the photography industry an amazing opportunity to make a lasting difference in the lives of children and the families who adopt them, and Duggal is truly proud to have lent its support for this noble cause.

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