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


Workshop Details

Five years ago, I began documenting young women on one block in the post Industrial City of Troy, New York. I met the first of these, while on assignment for THE NEW YOK TIMES. I was born in that same area in near by Albany and I left in my mid teens as a result of my involvement with the juvenile justice system. My mother was a single mother of three, who worked so there was plenty of time to get in trouble. I had not been back much in the 25 years since I left and I was not surprising by how little had changed. The young woman invited me back after The TIMES assignment to photograph the birth of her cousin’s baby via her best girlfriend. Both girls were 14 years old and the baby’s father was in prison as were both of their own fathers. The girls told me that they would share the parenting of the child, as they both knew how it was not to have a father around.

I was impressed by the resourcefulness of these young women and as I began my reporting, I believed that I was witnessing a kind new American family. This was a permanent social consequence of record numbers of males incarcerated in The United States. I realized by the end of the first year that the story I was doing was epic and layered and connected to all of contemporary social issues that I care about. I was looking at a permanent underclass of female heads of households via, globalization, criminalization of the poor, lack of effective education, and inherent sexual discrimination in the social welfare system and public health and nutrition disparities. by Further research about the area’s economy led me to the historic society – a great source of pride in Rensselaer County. I learned the Troy was the birthplace of The Industrial Revolution, The wealthiest City in The United States in The late 1800’s. Photographs that I saw were of privilege young women and strong women who formed the first continuously organized labor union in The Country. Troy was the home of Uncle Sam and all of the horseshoes for the civil war had been made right on the spot where the baby daddy of the first young woman I met slept as his first son was being born.

I have continued to follow five young women all for the same block where I began in 2004. They have grown, quit school, fallen in love again and again – mostly out of boredom, and disengagement, had health issues and joined the work force. All of them have either spent time in jail or had a family member and/or boyfriend who were locked up. Troy is too poor to be effected by the economic crisis – but the emotional deficit of young women in the community remains generational as the social policies and popular culture reinforced class disparity in Troy via internalization.

I have consistently given photographs back to the women in the neighborhood and have seen as the pictures become a form of visual conscience in a culture that id propelled by gossip and necessary shifting integrities. There is a hunger for knowledge in the women that I know as there was in me when I left Upstate, New York. I have had captive audiences as I rant about the prison industrial complex or how the only thing that saved me from a life that felt doomed rather than destined was – the knowledge of my life in relation to society on a grander scale. I then felt that I had to empower myself. I also felt that my experiences were not shameful as they were w reflection of society itself endorsed.

My project is to design a graphic novel that is propelled by the narrative of the coming of age stories of the five young women that I have chronicled since 2004. I want to draw parallels and contrasts to the discovery of Troy by The Dutch in the 1600’s and the early class system that powered the Industrial revolution. Through both nuanced and deliberate visual connection I want my target audience of at risk young woman to see themselves in the systems of education, economic disadvantage and criminalization. I have chosen the graphic novel format as it resonates with teen audiences of many reading levels. The stories are of young women that are from the audiences home community and seeing the images chronologically is key to promoting introspection and fostering empowerment in future choices. The format will have a pulp quality as the photographs are easily lent to this ascetic and love plays such an important role in the lives of young women with fewer long- term possibilities.

The Sanctuary for Independent Media is directly across the street for the block that I have been working in for this project. I approached them because of their reputation for working in The community. I had a show there in January and the young women and community have been an active part in the hanging and captioning of the work. A component of the show was to arrange three scrapbook workshops with the women’s; own photographs. The result has been a collection of new historic documents that will now be added to The Historic Society’s testaments to a prosperous Troy. The graphic novel will be a catalyst for future visually driven participatory workshops.

The major part of the distribution is the design of the graphic novel itself. The completion of the distribution is the get hard copies in the hands of non- traditional teachers, students and counselors in Troy, New York. The sanctuary has a list of teachers that have already been to the print show of the work and seen the press. They are invaluable in this process. We will engage in workshops and discussions around the issues and issues of autonomy. The Participants will then make their own visual narrative – contextualized in their view of current social policies. The goal of this project is to encourage at risk females in Upstate New York, to think critically about their roles in the context of existing economic – social and legal policies, through engagement with their own coming of age stories and those of other young women from their own community. We plan to use these visual histories to help break the cycle of internalized criminalization and marginalization that has immobilized young women in low income communities throughout the U.S. Using The graphic novel as a study guide and example the women will respond by creating their own visual record via gathering photographs and ephemera and writing passages to bear witness to their own past and validate the culture that has been created by our contemporary social policies.

The terms graphic novel and scrapbook will be interchangeable as they relate to the history that has shaped the Troy neighborhood and the region in Upstate, New York where we will concentrate our efforts.

The next phase would be to have the book printable as a PDF –on line then we would be available to facilitate the workshops at the expense of the entity requesting them.

The success of this project can be tracked by evaluating the size and scope of a developing online community once the participatory web site in implemented – this is phase two and on going.

A note the examples you see just draw issues together- the actually piece will be visually driven – minimal text and propelled by the narrative – the major purpose of the grant is for design.

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.