Upstate Girls
a layered documentary project started by Brenda Ann Kenneally
and The Team of Volunteer Producers

To view the scrapbook still images, please click here

How The Scrappin' Upstate Project Began

In 2008, when I was five years into the "Upstate Girls " project I had an exhibition of the photographs that I had made at The Sanctuary For Independent Media in Troy, New York. I chose The Sanctuary for the U.S. debut of the work because it was located directly across the street from the homes where the families that are the subject of the documentary live. Hanging the show became a neighborhood event. Sanctuary volunteers, students from local collages and 'The Girls" from across the street were hanging pictures from The Upstate Project all over The Sanctuary walls. Our fingers sore from push pin abuse, we decided there should be an event where the women that I was documenting and professionals in the areas of issues raised by the reporting would come together to share information. In the spirit of the documentary as a call to action Dana, one of the young women in Upstate Girls, suggested that the women include parts of their own histories, which predated the photographs on the walls. Dana was a scrap booker and this seemed like a low tech and democratic way for every one to be part of the project.

The scrapbook workshop grew organically, from a Martha Stewart-esque arts and craft hobbyist esthetic into a window on contemporary social policy and a collective document of Post- Industrial America. The young women’s' need to collect and preserve their often scattered pasts, became contagious. Sabrina led the way, offering a vignette of her childhood through a series of prison Polaroids she posed for with her dad when she visited him through out his incarceration. Dana dealt with her decision to enter into an open adoption after she gave birth to her fist daughter. Heather spoke of the litany of children’s homes that she was raised up in.

During our opening on April 2nd 2008, Mari Shopsis then, director of Education at The Rennselaer County Historical society brought journals that she called scrapbooks from the Historical Society’s collection. As Mari read from Maria Tillman's 1890's diary, I listened, alongside the young women that I had been documenting since they were the same age as Tillman was when she wrote. We heard passages about young ladies as they studied with Emma Willard, (at the first recognized institution for the education of girls), attended balls and socials and had their comings out to society. The contrast to our scrapbooks was striking, and Mari suggested that we take notice of just whose stories get preserved for history. Certainly all the girls in Troy in the late 1800's represented in The Historical Society were from the upper class, she said. Mari said that Their collection held no diaries from factory workers of the day. We decided that the workshops were an opportunity to change that. The Upstate Girls participants agreed to donate digital versions of their own scrapbooks to The Rensselaer County Historical Society. The Society has now added these contemporary books to their permanent collection.

A year passed and it was difficult for some to complete the scrapbooks. Painful memories flooded back or as one woman redid hers for the forth time, she noted "it was difficult for her OCD "to cope with. Bille Jean gave me two huge moving cartons and asked me to do it for her - saying "there are things that I cannot/don't want to remember". We had to work around women who had lived their entire childhoods between relatives and had no photographs of their past, or for whom eviction or changing circumstance complicated the completion of their books. I gave away 22 scrapbooks and over two years 15 were completed.

In October 2009, The Sanctuary held a digital media workshop and I facilitated a group of four from the Scrapbook project as each wrote and recorded a 500-word life-story. The workshop took place during a window of time when James was just home on parole after serving two years, and was trying not to revisit his old friends, and in turn his old habits. The time for him was a purgatory and he poured his vulnerability into his scrapbook. James's experience reinforced, for me, the concrete value of reflection and expression and sparked the wish to incorporate the scrapbooks into a facet of the rehabilitation process in the future. Some had to be completed guerilla style, with me physically taking a woman to a quiet place or recording audio in my car in a parking lot to escape the distraction of household chaos. In some ways watching a person's approach to the scrapbook gave moving insight into their lives. The experience of collaborating with these young people has often transcended my years of reporting. There were moments when someone's visual connection to their past was transformative.

Each completed scrapbook here is a hard won victory! That the obstacles in front of many of the people who made them at times were so great is a telling fact beyond what you will see in their finished books. The stories are breathtaking and bold and generous and moving. Perhaps in two more years we have a dozen more. Our goal is to continue to partner with the Rensselaer County Historical Society and The Sanctuary For Independent Media to create an online archive of this work so that one hundred years from now historians, artists and scholars will read from them as a first hand account of not only Rennselaer County, but America in the "early 2000's".

To view content from both the Scrapbook Gallery opening and the Workshops, please click here.

Upstate Girls is supported through the award of competitive grants and the journalist's personal funds. You can help by purchasing fine prints (e-mail Brenda), or through tax deductible donations through our 501(c)(3) partner, the Sanctuary for Independent Media.

Past supporters have included Christina Cahill, Alberto Guzman, Gillian Laub, Diane and David Kent, Daniel Portnoy, Amanda Silverman and Leanne Ridel.
Upstate Girls; what Became of Collar City by Brenda Ann Kenneally, Laura LoForti, Murray Cox and Steven Zeswitz is copryright Brenda Ann Kenneally.
No unauthorized copies or use is allowed. Please contact for licensing.