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Susan Mullally’s Look Into Poverty

By Michael Martinez

A new book by Baylor professor Susan Mullally, What I Keep: Photographs of the New Face of Homelessness and Poverty, takes a personal look at the possessions we hold dear and how those things impact our lives. Using the members of Waco’s Church Under the Bridge (CUB) as her subjects, Mullally asked each person the same question: “What have you managed to hang onto, and why is that valuable?”  Their answers, and the resulting portraits, tell a profound story.

Mullally came to Baylor in 2007 from North Carolina after running Guilford College’s photography program. While exploring Waco and adapting to the Baylor community, Mullally encountered CUB, whose church services take place under the overpass on I-35 and Fourth Street. “Church Under the Bridge was really the first church I went to,” said Mullally. “I was looking for a church and I was looking for a place for service, and it had both of them.”

Mullally’s first service to CUB was as a photographer for the church directory, a project that Jimmy Dorrell, head minister of CUB, was advertising for in the church bulletin. “I thought, ‘I can do that; I’m a photographer,’ and so I volunteered,” Mullally said. She and Gary King, a fellow churchgoer and photographer, worked on photographing anyone who would register for the church.

“I’m a portrait photographer. I love people, I love getting to know them.” Mullally said. Mullally mentioned she also believes that the items were important in representing the people in the portraits. “I was asking people whose lives were very disrupted what they’d really managed to hang onto rather than what they collected and why was that valuable.”

Fred Albreight, Homeless Carpenter, from the series What I Keep by Susan MullallyThe book itself contains forty-five portraits–which are also included in a separate exhibit–although Mullally has more than sixty-five pieces and counting as the churchgoers at Church under the Bridge continually bring their possession that defines them the most. “The lighting is only the light that would come underneath these highways, and I used primarily the pillars as the backdrop,” she said. In each portrait, members of the church are pictured holding the object that they feel defines them. Each photograph, however, tells a different story.

Janie Dunlap, a retired cosmotologist, is pictured proudly displaying her great-grandmother’s antique 7-UP bottle. Patrick Brown, a recovering addict, clings to the watch and ring he encountered while dumpster-diving. “Now I got some bling-bling, but I’m going to keep them, both of them,” he said.

Mullally said, “The book was named Photographs of the New Face of Homelessness, but this wasn’t about poverty. It’s a very mixed community that goes to Church Under the Bridge. By [having that name] they’ve kind of changed the conversation. But that’s fine, because it’s a conversation we ought to have.”

What I Keep: Photographs of the New Face of Homeless and Poverty, is available in hardback through Baylor University Press.

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