When New York-based photographer Joey O’Loughlin was asked by the non-profit Food Bank for New York City to take photos for its website, it was the first time she really noticed the food pantries that dot the city she’s lived in for 20 years.
“They are around churches and community centers and places like that, and it’s not something that captures people’s interests,” says O’Loughlin, who noticed that many people walk by the lines without even glancing at them. “But it’s also uncomfortable to see people standing in a food line, and its uncomfortable for the people in line to be there. There’s an agreement between the two that we should keep going and just look away.”
Easy as they may be to ignore for some, there’s a huge portion of the city’s population–one in five New Yorkers, according to the Food Bank for NYC’s website–who rely on food pantries for weekly groceries and other resources. Food Bank for New York City distributes government, donated and wholesale food to pantries–the frontline agencies sponsored by churches and other community coalitions that reach out to communities directly. In New York’s five boroughs alone, there are over 600 pantries that serve 1.4 million people.
Once O’Laughlin started noticing the pantries and their lines, often wrapping around the block, she couldn’t forget them. The commissioned work spun into a three-year personal project. Visiting a total of 40 food pantries in New York, O’Laughlin spent the most time in 10 of them, photographing the lines but also getting to know the people who stood in them week after week. Now, her photographs are on display at the Brooklyn Historical Society in the exhibition Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC.
One consequence of glancing away are the widespread misconceptions about food pantries and the people who use them. “Many people think ‘Oh, that’s for the homeless,’ or ‘that’s like a soup kitchen.’ It’s not,” says O’Loughlin. Over the three years she worked on this project, O’Loughlin met working mothers, community college students, artists, the unemployed, and large families.
Some had long been out of work or recently fallen on tough times, but many were working, and sometimes held down multiple jobs. “The perception is that people aren’t working hard, but these people are working these low wage jobs and taking care of their children,” she says. “They’re not looking for a handout, they’re trying to take care of their families–and they’re smartly using the resources that the government provides to families in need.”
Some of the people O’Loughlin met in line even let her photograph them in their homes. Showing people in their own space helps to humanize their experience, she says. “It’s easier to empathize. When you see their dinner set with princess plates, pictures on the wall, people can relate. The line is easy to look away from, it’s not so easy to in their own home.”
O’Loughlin says that she came away from the project with a lot of respect for the food pantries, which she feels are doing the best with what they have. Still, she says, it’s unsustainable–a bandaid on a much larger issue. “The root of the problem is that people need to get paid more,” she says. “The people in NYC are willing to work and, in many cases, are working, it’s just that living expenses in the city are getting higher and higher.”
Hidden in Plain Sight: Portraits of Hunger in NYC will be on view at the Brooklyn Historical Society through November 5.
*Correction: An earlier version of this story said that food banks collect food from grocery stores and distribute to food pantries. The article has been updated to note that the organization Food Bank for New York City collects government, donated and wholesale food, not food from grocery stores.
All Photos: Joey O’Loughlin