Behind the Camera — Interview with Barbara Grover

Barbara Grover and Liz Braun-Lilenfeld
April 13, 2022

A core part of MAZON’s work is to challenge the dominant and incorrect narratives about people who experience hunger in our nation. Years ago, we sought to tell a new story of hunger in America — to reframe an often untold and frequently misrepresented story.  We first invited photojournalist and documentarian Barbara Grover to travel around the country in a series of trips from the southwest to the northeast, in the wake of hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, post-recession — and now, mid-pandemic — to connect with folks interested in sharing their stories with us and resetting the narrative on hunger in America. MAZON’s Deputy Director of Outreach, Liz Braun-Lilenfeld, sat down with Barbara to reflect on the picture she saw of a hungry nation.

(edited for clarity)

Liz: A few questions to begin. How do you approach your work and what are you trying to capture? How do you establish trust and ease with folks both in entering their space and telling their story? Perhaps most directly how do you decide who you want to interview?

Barbara: I believe everybody has a story. It’s just getting that person to feel comfortable to tell their story.

I’ve been telling other people’s stories since I was a little girl. That desire to give people a voice grew out of the sense of social justice imparted to me by my mother. When I was in junior high, my class was given an open-ended assignment. I decided that I was going to take the bus all around the L.A. area and talk to immigrants about what it was like being an immigrant in L.A. I felt even at that time, as a young teen, that immigrants were a misunderstood population here. They weren’t treated fairly. I just always felt very comfortable walking up to a stranger and explaining why it’s important for them to be able to share their story with others that don’t normally hear it.

I decide who I want to interview by observing people. You can tell a lot about someone by how they engage with others, or the expression on their face. When I show up somewhere, whether it’s a food bank, or a military base, I can tell who has so much in their heart that they need to let out and they just need to be asked.

Most people who are food insecure don’t feel heard. I think it’s very, very empowering to someone who struggles every day to navigate the system, who wants to better their lives but hits obstacle after obstacle, to hear that there’s this organization that is focused on telling their stories and advocating on their behalf. That really opens a lot of doors.

Getting people to trust me is always a bit of a juggling act. I show up. I have one minute, maybe, to explain the project while they’re standing in line to get a bag of food. So, I explain what I’m doing, who I’m doing it for, why it’s important. I make sure they understand this is a way for them to tell their story, and it will be heard. They always ask how their portraits and stories will be used and I told them all the conceivable possibilities I could imagine. I’d say, “Maybe your photo would be on a billboard someday and your story will be told to Congress.” So, when MAZON featured a mother and child’s photo on a Times Square billboard, and when stories were entered into the Congressional record, I felt that I honored the promise I made to them. That was important to me personally, as well as what they would think about MAZON.

A lot of people I’ve asked over the years say, “Well yeah, I’m glad to talk to you but I don’t know if I want my picture taken.” And so, that’s the next challenge.

Many people don’t want friends or family to see that they’re in this situation, or they don’t think they’re photogenic. I’m very stubborn, which I think helps in getting them to agree to participate.

I’m always very aware that it’s important to debunk the myths about who is on SNAP. And the truth is, you go to almost any food distribution site or unemployment line and you really do see all kinds of people some that you wouldn’t expect to be there. It’s important to MAZON and it’s important to me to represent who is food insecure.

Liz: How many people do you approach, and how many of those turn into full dialogues? And are there stories or photos that stick with you, whether it’s the connection you established, something they shared, or on reflection, looking at their portrait?

Barbara: I’m pretty selective about who I approach. Most people say yes, and certainly most people that I’ve really wanted to talk to say yes.

Dillon and his mom are always top of mind for me. This was pre-COVID. They were in a pickup truck in a very packed line of cars at a drive-through food distribution center. It’s a very efficient way to serve a lot of people, especially in semi-rural communities where people are getting more than a week’s worth of food.

There was something about Dillon, so I ran up to talk to them. I asked his mom first and Dillon just said, “I want to do it. I want to do it.” Dillon was very persistent. His parents were really very hesitant, even after agreeing, but Dillon really wanted to do it, and I really wanted to talk to him you could just tell he was special. The way he took care of his mom. The way he was just so assertive. And his story sticks out because I think many kids feel like they have to step up and really help their parents.

He said, “I think it’s unfair that there’s a law in this country that kids can’t work, because we should be able to take care of our parents.” I tried to explain why, and it didn’t make sense to him.

I think the situations where it’s taken a little bit of extra convincing on my part are also some of the most poignant stories.

This project has shaped my view of America. It’s not always just the people that I’ve interviewed. It’s what I’ve seen and other conversations that I’ve had. Seeing the drug crises, the political divide and more, up close. It’s seeing an America I don’t usually encounter.

Liz: Does each interview build on the last? Does it influence what you’re asking and the arc of the story that you’re telling? And on the macro level, what was different for you as an artist, as a journalist, and as a person when you interviewed folks during COVID? How do you see the arc of this body of work changing or staying the same?

Barbara: A lot of the stories have a similar thread, but when I hear each personal story, I become more informed about food insecurity. And so when I go talk to someone else, I have just a little more background information that no service provider or book or google search could have given me.

It’s really learning those personal, intimate details that’s what’s really been an honor and a privilege in doing this project. I hope it’s been cathartic for the people who talk to me. They really open up. They’ll share things they’ve never talked about before or never really thought about.

As far as what’s really changed not a whole lot, which is really the problem. There have been strides, and largely because of advocates like MAZON. I think the country hasn’t changed that much except for all that COVID has wrought.

When I went out after the pandemic began, there were two things that happened. A lot of people agreed to be interviewed and then when I tried following up, I couldn’t reach them. Maybe they moved away or they had their phones cut off because they were unemployed. But the stories I did gather had very similar through-lines. “I had this great life. I was really secure. I had always saved money. I had this, this and this, no problem whatsoever, and boom, COVID hits.”

I think of this woman who was a tour guide for these very high-end international tours. She did everything right in life. Because of the nature of her work, she literally became unemployed overnight. She had figured out how much her savings could take her, but she knew that it was going to be a good two years before she could go back to work because international travel agents weren’t booking tours.

Her life dramatically changed. It took a lot of convincing by friends for her to go to a food distribution site, but she realized she had no choice. She also recognized she wasn’t just going for herself, but for her neighbors too the big box that was given to her was just to much for one person to eat. Some people can’t eat what’s in the box because of dietary restrictions. So, people are sharing with their neighbors or family members.

From the beginning of this project, I often heard “I never thought this could happen to me” stories, but they are a lot more frequent now because of COVID. So many people lost their jobs overnight.

Liz: Returning to your remark that folks haven’t shared this or haven’t reflected on it in this way so many of the interviews do touch on the larger structural forces at play. How much of that is coming from the interviewee and how much of that are you bringing to the conversation?

Barbara: I would say a lot of it’s coming from them, although I do tend to ask if it doesn’t.  I’ll ask, “If you could tell your elected officials anything, what would it be?” Or, “What would you like to see change?” I don’t usually get that far because that’s one of the motivating factors for them to talk to me in the first place.

They’ve shared that they don’t usually connect with the decision makers, and when they try to get a job or sign up for unemployment or food stamps, they hit such obstacles. This project offers a space to discuss what they go through to try to make their lives better. There’s such a stigma attached to being food insecure they want people to know this isn’t their fault and that it’s often the system that creates the obstacles.

Liz: You’ve shared that you don’t know going into an interview what the arc of their story is going to be. Are you building that narrative as you interview them? Are you seeing an arc and orienting your questions toward that, or does it reveal itself afterwards?

Barbara: I have a set of questions, which of course changes a bit depending on, say, if I’m in Indian Country or I’m talking to military families. But I feel like I’m building an arc, while allowing it to veer in a different direction. I don’t know that I’d call it a story arc as much as a path that sort of ebbs and flows, and, oftentimes the interview stops and starts because they’ll get a phone call or kids will wake up from a nap.

With some people, it takes hours to get them to really open up. They feel so ashamed, especially mothers, so ashamed that they can’t feed their families on their own. It’s just a basic value we have. We should be able to take care of our families through food, more than even shelter, I think.

I really try to make my time with them more of a conversation than an interview.  That helps people feel comfortable. But sometimes, they’re not even aware of the burden they carry. It usually comes out eventually, and often in tears.

But they know talking to me helps other people that’s very important to the people I interview. Most of them say as much. They feel like, “Wow, I’m actually doing good for someone else by talking about my own experience”, which is so important. So many of the interviewees really struggle every day to try to either get on SNAP or get a job or juggle a million different things.

Liz: It’s a reclaiming of agency.

Barbara: Yeah. It’s very empowering for them.

Liz: At MAZON, we have conversations with partners and survey the field in order to explore the policy changes we want to pursue or to surface new populations and particular barriers we want to focus on. Were your interviews a generative process in that way? “Here’s a challenge that many people are talking about”, or “This is a place that we can influence.”

Barbara: The formulas that are used to decide who’s eligible for both unemployment and SNAP are so rigid, and they don’t take into account the bigger picture of a person’s life. Yes, a person may own a car because they weren’t in the situation five years ago and they still have that car. No, they can’t sell that car because it would be hard for them to hold down a job or take their kids to school. But cars are considered assets, and when they’re applying for government assistance, all those things are taken into consideration. Maybe I own my home, but what am I going to do, sell my house? Where am I going to go live? Rent can be more expensive than a mortgage.

I think a lot of those things come up even like the way a food distribution is operated. Some service providers never have the luxury of talking to the people they serve because they are so overwhelmed with meeting the need. I think when you’re a provider, you’re so busy just trying to keep up with what you need to do to provide, you don’t always have that luxury of getting to know people, trying to figure out what will really make their lives better, what they need.

A lot of the service provider’s information is based on forms people fill out when they go there, which tells part of the story. Of course, some service providers intimately know the people they serve and really try to be in community with people and help them deal with the different challenges. Another program that I encountered dealt with underserved youth and the whole family had to go through a training program on life skills how to balance a budget, how to deal with conflict within the family. That’s where I met Blanca who is featured in This Is Hunger. I met her when she was 14, and when I spoke to her several years later, she was on her way to a law school summer internship to help at risk youth.

Liz: Were there regional differences?

Barbara: Yeah. Absolutely, and in different ways. For example, the choices made by people who are food insecure varies depending on geography and culture. There are many parts of the country where fresh produce isn’t available at a food distribution site and is so expensive in a market. People have to decide whether to use food stamps to buy a few apples, or pasta that will fill their bellies for a week. And there are huge differences between military culture and civilian life.

Liz: Administrations have changed and the temperature of the country has changed a number of times in the past decade. Have you seen people’s hope and trust in the possibility of systemic change fluctuate accordingly?

Barbara: People’s hopes and trust are really very partisan. But the biggest change I’ve seen is because of the extra benefit bump people got because of COVID. For a lot of people, it was not an option to go back to work. It was safer to stay on unemployment and if they qualified, get the extra EBT that came with COVID benefits. They were making more money than they would if they went back to their jobs, because they were being rehired for a lot less hours and it wasn’t secure. 

Carly was the perfect example in so many ways. She really was just about get her life on a much better track. She had this low-wage, unstable food service job. They let her go, and she was trying to start a nail business. And then, her job wanted her back but only for three hours here and there. What is a mother supposed to do who also has to take care of a kid and worry about childcare and all this other stuff? She really struggled with that choice, asking, “Why am I going to go back to work?”, for what she considered to be an abusive employer.

Liz: Do photos or interviews come first?

Barbara: I always interview people first because I feel like it really does establish a different connection. Sometimes it’s an hour later, sometimes it’s three hours later, and they’re much more comfortable with me, and so, they’re more comfortable having their photo taken.

Liz: Do you give people much direction when you’re doing photos?

Barbara: I consider them environmental portraits, so I’m always looking for an environment that reflects who they are. Usually, I interview them in their home, so I’m looking for a place in their home that sort of speaks to their story a little bit or their personality or somehow resonates, but that’s not always possible. I’m trying to give the viewer a sense of who this person is when they look at their photo. And then, as far as direction, when they seem uncomfortable, I usually say, “How do you want the world to see you? What do you want people to walk away with?”

What I often see is like a mixture of sadness and pride. You know, “I’m fighting for my rights.” That’s the point of it for them.

Liz: It is interesting looking at a set of one person or a family, and in one picture they look wistful or dejected, and then so determined. It’s so striking to see that switch.

Barbara: I think a lot of what you see is when they exit the interview, the portraits reflect what they’re feeling. Emery, for instance. He was angry. He was angry at his situation, and that’s what he felt at the time and also what he wanted people to see, so that’s what we got. Then there are other people who feel more empowered and more hopeful.

Liz: I think the intergenerational portraits when adults are sharing the space with their children and they can’t help but smile it’s just beautiful. The story of food insecurity they just shared is a part of their life, and it’s not the only part of their life.

Barbara: The love of the parents is what keeps them going. They love their kids, they love their family so much, and they’re going to do whatever it takes. If there was one line I heard over and over, that was it.

I want to share their hope. Some of them are just exhausted from fighting the system, but they’re also determined, and I think that comes through in the photos.

We are grateful for the stories and photographs uncovered through Barbara’s journey. As we continue our storytelling project, we look forward to spotlighting more individuals and communities in our priority populations, who are too often ignored or overlooked.