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Brenda Ann Kenneally

Introduction & Biographical Essay | Resources

Introduction & Biographical Essay


Portrait of photographer Brenda Ann Kenneally.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, 2015.

Brenda Ann Kenneally is a woman on a mission. Born in Albany, New York, in the late 1950s, Kenneally grew up in nearby Troy. Although once the home of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, by the 1960s and 1970s, Troy had been left behind. Troy's decline helps explain why Kenneally became the photographer she is. She moved away, obtained advanced degrees, and found her natural talent as a photographer. She has used that talent to document the people she knew too well, the ones industry leaves behind when production of goods changes without provision for retraining the work force.

Kenneally has spent her adulthood as a professional photographer and photojournalist. She has funded her work largely through magazine assignments, competitive grants for photojournalists, and frequently refinancing her house. The New York Times and electronic publications such as Slate have sought out her photographs. She has received honors and awards but has also been the subject of vicious social media commentary for daring to expose communities that live with financial poverty. Kenneally's past has shaped her career. She acknowledged, "The work I do is what has pulled me out of the life that I look at though my camera, and yet it is the same one that pulls me back into it through loyalty to it."1

Through purchase and generous gifts from the photographer, the Library holds 43 color and black-and-white photographs by Kenneally.

Early Life

Brenda Ann Kenneally was born in 1959. She has a brother and a sister. Her father was bi-polar and often deeply depressed. Her parents divorced when Kenneally was a young child, and her mother joined the work force, but in her thirties was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Realizing that she was in danger of repeating the pattern of her parents and her neighborhood, Kenneally fled to Florida in 1975 where she received the support of a recovery community and stopped using drugs and alcohol in 1985. She also worked intermittently as a carnival performer and as an assistant to photographer Rosalind Solomon. At age 26, she attended community college and then the University of Miami where journalism professors Michael Carlebach and David Kent recognized her talent and drive and encouraged her to push herself professionally. Carlebach introduced her to Tom Schroeder, then editor of "Tropic," the Miami Herald magazine, and insisted that he look at Kenneally's work, which led to her images being published there.

First Photographic Projects

In 1996, in her mid-thirties, Kenneally moved to New York City with her husband and two-year old son to pursue a master's degree in arts education at New York University. The only apartment they could afford was in the then dangerous neighborhood of Bushwick. Kenneally introduced herself to her neighbors and began photographing their activities, which she found frighteningly similar to those she had left home to escape. One of her new neighbors, eight year old Andy, commented, "If you weren't from there, you shouldn't walk through there."

Kenneally soon recognized that her spouse could not encourage the personal growth she needed to develop her talent and they separated. She and her son stayed in Bushwick where she photographed and wrote about the effects of crack cocaine around her. In text accompanying the pictures, Kenneally said, "Ninety-nine percent of the photographs in my project occur on our own street. Most conflicts here are about power. Money is a way to get power; drugs are a way to get money. Respect is power."2

In 2000, Kenneally received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for photographing where she lived. In 2002 she published a selection of her pictures and texts about her neighborhood in The New York Times Magazine and in 2005 she published the full project as the book Money Power Respect: Pictures of My Neighborhood.3 The book garnered awards, including a Soros Criminal Justice Fellowship to reduce the destructive impact of criminal justice policies on the lives of individuals, families, and communities in the U.S., as well as The Mother Jones Award for nonprofit social justice reporting.

Professional Activities

Photograph shows a young boy making a purchase at La Posta Corner Store, Troy, New York.
La Posta Corner Store,
Troy, New York, 2008.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, photographer.

Andy, the child who was Kenneally's principal subject in Money Power Respect returned to Bushwick after taking jobs in other states. Like Andy, Kenneally was drawn back to her childhood neighborhood in Troy, despite her efforts to escape. In 2003, Kenneally accepted the invitation of a fourteen-year old Troy native Kayla (one of the girls featured in Money Power Respect) to photograph the birth of her baby.4 Thus began "Upstate Girls," a project for which Kenneally has returned for more than ten years to her hometown to photograph Kayla, her baby, and their circle as they meet the challenges of daily life. Much of the photography is done in the intimacy of the subjects' bedrooms and other rooms in their homes. The project also documents some of the environment, such as billboards about state-run health programs and the lack of healthy snack options for sale at the corner store. Her images refer, too, to the national symbol of Uncle Sam, which originated in Troy, and is an enduring local source of pride.5

In 2006, Kenneally's multimedia coverage of the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina for The New York Times received a Pulitzer Prize nomination and the multimedia component, "Finding the Way Home," received the 2008 MediaStorm Webby Award in the News and Politics: Individual Episode category. The New York Times calls the Webby Award the "Oscar of the Internet."6

Photograph shows Allysa Lemoine standing in front of her great-grandmother's destroyed house after Hurricane Katrina.
Allysa Lemoine,
New Orleans, Louisiana, July 2006.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, photographer.
Photograph shows Michaela Ruberts standing in front of family and friends as her father colors her sister Angel's hair at the trailer they live in after their home was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina.
Michaela Ruberts,
Covington, Louisiana, July 2006.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, photographer.


Kenneally's photographs enlarge the practice of photographing low income people. Her work follows a tradition that includes Scottish photographer Thomas Annan (1829-1887), the first to record the housing conditions of the poor in Glasgow starting in 1866; Jacob Riis (1849-1914) who used photographs of slum neighborhoods in New York City to illustrate his muckraking newspaper articles about immigrant life; and Lewis Hine (1874-1940) who photographed child labor to help reform labor laws for children and working class adults.

Kenneally was familiar with the Farm Security Administration photographs (1935-1945) (FSA/OWI Black-and-White Negatives and FSA/OWI Color Photographs) but, oddly, when she made post-Katrina photographs of the Ruberts family of Covington, Louisiana, she did not know of the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.7 Her images are uncannily similar in content and composition to the photographs of Walker Evans in that book, while the tone of them reflects the voice of writer James Agee who spent his youth in an impoverished Tennessee farm until he, too, left in search of an education.

Photograph shows Michaela Ruberts carrying a plate of pears in the kitchen of their home five years after Hurricane Katrina.
Michaela Ruberts, Five Years After Katrina,
Covington, Louisiana, August 2010.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, photographer.
Photograph shows Angel and Michaela Ruberts lying on a bunk bed as a brother climbs through a window in a bedroom of their home five years after Hurricane Katrina.
Michaela, Angel and Austin Ruberts,
Covington, Louisiana, August 2010.
Brenda Ann Kenneally, photographer.

Kenneally works in the literary tradition of Tillie Olsen (Circa 1912 - 2007) who wrote wrenching fiction about the circumscribed lives of poor women like herself. Like Olsen, Kenneally has pursued art with a formal education that is often associated with middle class and upper class goals, but her "personal and emotional identification" remains profoundly with the class of her birth.8

Kenneally advances the visual documentation of poverty by including video in her documentation and eBooks. As she wrote in her successful Guggenheim grant proposal, "Like all relationships, the ones that I develop through my camera take time and nurturing. I don't know if one can capture time through photography, but I am never in a hurry when I am taking pictures."

Farm Security Administration photographer Dorothea Lange used her subjects' words in the written captions for her photographs. Kenneally engages her subjects through her use of electronic media. In her most recent work from Troy, Kenneally is determined to give her subjects the opportunity to speak for themselves. The scrapbooks and video diaries of the girls are as much a part of the project as the still photographs. Kenneally is a master of her craft who dares to find art in the clutter of the expendable, the intentionally overlooked, and the abandoned. As with past photojournalists, she won't let us overlook the many communities that live in poverty within the United States.


1 Interview: Brenda Ann Kenneally on recording the lives of "Upstate Girls," External link A Notable Narrative feature from the Nieman Foundation.

2 2000 Recipient: Brenda Ann Kenneally External link of the award from the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund.

3 Brenda Ann Kenneally, Money Power Respect: Pictures of My Neighborhood, New York: Channel Photographics, 2005.

4 "When Struggling Families Spark Internet Rage" External link in the Op-Talk blog of The New York Times.

5 See Uncle Sam and Samuel Wilson External link entries in Wikipedia.

6 "MediaStorm Wins Webby Awards" External link

7 See digital versions of Walker Evans' two photograph albums of sharecropper families in Alabama, prepared in advance of the publication of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

8 Constance Coiner, "Tillie Olsen's Life," Modern American Poetry. External link

Prepared by: Beverly W. Brannan, Curator of Photography, Prints & Photographs Division, 2014. Last revised: 2015.

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  December 23, 2015
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