My Residency has come to an end, but my adventure with plastic waste is just beginning!

It’s hard to believe that a year has passed by already! As I embarked on my year long photography residency at Flower City Arts Center I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew I would be teaching throughout and working on documentary projects. I had no idea how much my personal project would challenge me while allowing me to grow and take a journey on another path. As I stepped outside the photographic work I am most familiar with, I had the same goal in mind –to raise an awareness about an issue I am passionate about. I chose Litter.

The challenge for me was the how. How do I document litter in a way that is unique while sending a powerful message. A day at the beach inspired the foundation of what is now a part of my work, plastic waste. 

Plastic waste picked up on Sodus Point Beach this summer. The swell of water in Lake Ontario gave rise to plastic all along the shores and beaches of the lake in early spring.

Equal to my passion for documenting issues that affect our community, I have become dedicated to the issue of plastic and it’s effect on the planet. It is my hope the images I create raise consciousness while encouraging paradigm shifts in our perceptions of one another, and those in positions of agency to help will step in and be the change the world needs.

The plastic project has done just that! I’ve had college groups reaching out to do beach cleanups, photographers joining forces to document our plastic problem, artists creating art out of waste, and community members committed to being the change this planet is in dire need of. This past year as a Flower City Arts Center photo resident has left me with such a powerful gift. Self-awareness. I caught my own attention regarding waste. Thinking I had a relatively small footprint, I was so wrong. Now I know, and through art the world will know.

Though my residency has come to an end, I will still be a teaching artist at the center, I hope you’ll join me! Thank you for such a special year, Megan, Sharon, Mark, Amanda, and Janice!

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The Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World spent a recent Saturday afternoon picking up litter while concentrating on plastic at Sodus Point Beach. 30 lbs. of debris was collected. This plastic will be turned into purposeful art.

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A rainbow of color along the beach at Braddock Heights looks beautiful when seen collected and sorted, however plastic is a real concern for the planet. People made plastic pledges after viewing the Plastics: Our Weakness exhibit this summer, what will your pledge be?

Plastic Waste

Through my documentary photography I explore the human condition and the individual paths people take on their journey. Photography for me, has been an exploration of self-discovery as I tend towards issues that have affected me personally. My hope is always to raise an awareness and open the door for conversation.

Plastic waste picked up along Hamlin Beach

Plastics: Our Human Waste has been an education unlike no other. The evolution of this project came about due to my anxiety over litter. It seemed to me that many of the issues I document have

Go Green, Braddock Heights Beach
Black Plastic, Braddock Heights Beach

no concrete solutions. Litter on the other hand seems an easy fix. Don’t litter. Recycle. Pick it up. I am now aware that it is not that easy. My approach to Plastics came about after spending a day at Hamlin Beach along the shore of Lake Ontario. Looking around I was blown away at the amount of litter washed up. This wasn’t just any old litter, it was all plastic.

Bottle caps in all colors and sizes are strewn across our parks and beaches. To be recycled, a plastic cap must be kept on the bottle otherwise it is considered a contaminant. Caps get into our waterways most often by way of littering. Littered bottle caps are washed into storm drains, making their way into bodies of water. Eventually breaking down, the plastic become false food for marine life. Photo by Daryl Thaler. #KeepTheCapAttached

Picking up this plastic as though it were sea glass, I started sorting by color, shapes, and size. Working my way through Braddock, Durand and Webster beaches picking up plastic became a daily routine. The enormous amount of multi-colored plastic waste became overwhelming.

Plastic tampon applicators are abundant along Lake Ontario beaches. Photo by Daryl Thaler. #Refuse

Researching plastic in Lake Ontario was scary:

In 2012 and 2013 NGO 5 Gyres sampled areas of Lake Ontario, they recorded levels of plastic as high as 1.1 million particles per square km. – NOW Toronto News

Alex Mifflin of NOW Toronto states, “Just like the infamous garbage patches of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, our own backyard has been turned into a plastic soup – only our lakes have even higher concentrations of plastics than the biggest ocean garbage patches.

Plastic debris recovered by Juan Pablo Munoz’s marine biology lab at the GAIAS Institute in the Galápagos Islands. Photo by Ben McLauchlin

I raised an awareness within my own family. Thinking we have a relatively small footprint, I was so wrong, plastic is used in every facet of our lives. It is my hope that these images alongside the actual plastic collected from the shores of Lake Ontario will raise an awareness in you.

Sea life sculptures made from discarded plastic found in Binghamton, NY by Ben McLauchlin

Saturday, August 19th, I will be hosting an Artist Talk on Plastics: Our Human Waste at the Flower City Arts Center. I have several guests joining me to include photographers who participated in documenting plastic and litter Jacalyn Meyvis and Erica Jae, my husband, Daryl Thaler who ventured out with me weekly collecting plastic waste along beaches and Ben McLauchlin, a Rochester native and Binghamton University student focusing on environmental studies and graphic design. Ben has participated in research in the Galapagos Islands studying plastic and will be talking about his experiences as well as sharing his images.

While at the talk you can check out images of plastic collected along Lake Ontario beaches and litter from Rochester area parks, the actual plastic that was swimming in the lake, and some cool artwork created by local artisans from the plastic.

Mermaid created out of plastic waste found along Lake Ontario beaches, by Kelly Cheatle of Airigami Balloon Creations

Remember: Reduce. Recycle. Reuse. Refuse.

Plastics – Our Human Waste

Passionate about litterplastic pollution?

When I started working on my personal project as a Photography Artist in Residence at Flower City Arts Center, I had no idea it would change how I see the world as much as it has. I mean litter, how original can I be with that subject? I photograph people…yet to my surprise I have raised my own awareness!! Excitedly the community is joining me in cleaning up our Lake Ontario shoreline and parks in Monroe County and beyond, you can too!

I will be hosting plastic picking pop-ups as a part of my upcoming exhibit Plastics: Our Weakness. Perhaps we can start a movement together.

Unlike mini Clean Sweeps these events will be freelance so to speak. You will need to provide your own gloves, nifty grabbers, and bags for sorting. I have no doubt plastic litter will inspire the artist activist in you!!
I’ll be in the north side parking lot along the shoreline, furthest to the east in a dark blue, rusty ford escape. Message me at arleen.thaler@gmail for more details!

A small portion of plastic litter picked up along the Lake Ontario shoreline this summer.

Join me: GEM Gallery Talk

Saturday, July 15, 2017, 1 p.m., George Eastman Museum
Please join me as I guide visitors on a tour of the exhibition The Run-On of Time, the first museum retrospective of Eugene Richards‘s work, while I share my own experience working in Rochester, New York as a photojournalist, photography artist-in residence and teaching artist at the Flower City Arts Center where I offer the Social Reportage class covering the issues that face our time while raising a visual awareness through thoughtful immersion.
Eugene Richards (American, b. 1944). Henry’s boots, Still House Hollow, Tennessee, 1986. Gelatin silver print. Collection of Eugene Richards. © Eugene Richards
Free to members; included with museum admission.
Saturday, July 15, 2017
1 p.m.
George Eastman Museum
Members Free

Opening Doors for Community Conversation

Several weeks ago I was called out about the photo walks I give in the city of Rochester, NY. They were likened to a tour in a zoo due to the marginalized neighborhoods we went in, neighborhoods I’ve lived in. Most recently a Rochester based journalist contacted me to let me know she wanted to talk with me. She was transparent. The reason, she wants to critique my walks because there is a charge for them and the neighborhoods are primarily African American and poverty stricken.

I mentioned that I do not get paid, the money taken in for these walks directly supports youth programming and scholarships. After reading an article on these sorts of walks, the issue goes much deeper.

Over the past several years, almost weekly someone asks to walk with me to see how I photograph through immersion (even the fellow who likened it to a zoo trip and now sells images of strangers in Rochester for profit –go figure) Not thinking anything of it, I most always said yes. These photo walks offer me the opportunity to teach and share how I make meaningful connections in the community.

Another part of the inspiration for these walks was my recent completion of 18 months as the Northwest team leader for Flower City AmeriCorp walking specifically in poverty stricken neighborhoods doing surveys, outreach, etc. for the Rochester-Monroe Anti-Poverty Initiative. I am proud of the projects myself and my team members created to help those in need. During this time I documented the City of Rochester’s amazing programs for the youth residing within these neighborhoods. I am honored to have my images used in the 2017 Summer Recreation Program guide.
City of Rochester 2017 Summber Recreation Program Guide
My curiosity over the comment and interest led me to google photo walks, street photography workshops, etc. I am not naive to the issues today regarding race and come from a racially diverse family. I am educated on ethical issues regarding photojournalism. In my search a recent article popped up about walks/tours in Bushwick, I was shocked but I wasn’t shocked. White led groups of white tourists in marginalized areas…reading that sounds strange and awful. Cringeworthy.

I reflected on my walks. As a part of my artist residency at Flower City Arts Center, I decided to offer photo field trips. The premise of these walks –to build bridges, make connections, explore, meet new photographers and enjoy the city I have lived in and documented for some time. They were also a way to answer the question put forth by African American artist, Sharita Towne, How do you take pictures of somebody in a way that brings them to the table instead of putting them on the menu?”

What I didn’t realize is how these walks could be perceived by some. The walks themselves never gave indication of being gratuitous or exploitative. Strangers became friends. Participants made connections with people we met along the way, had meaningful dialogue on issues the city faces while exchanging  phone numbers and linking on social media to share the images created.

All that aside, I’m pretty certain that my integrity, my heart, and my love of the Roc that make up the foundation of these walks will not be received that way by some. And that is okay.

I see every side, I’d like to think that is one of my strengths as a photojournalist, being mindful of those who are or could be potentially hurt. On that note, the photo field trips are no longer available. I don’t want to be THAT photographer. Sometimes we do things that are pure of heart not realizing that pure of heart may have a negative effect on other’s hearts.

It is time we all truly need to listen, step outside and check ourselves. Forget field trips into the city, listening is truly bridge-building and heart work.

The eye-opening article:

Arleen Thaler
Rochester, NY

The Sign Project

Veteran by Arleen Thaler

One night I received a text from my friend Jon, a homeless young man who lives in a tent in Rochester New York. Jon sent me a link to a project done by Rethink Homelessness, an initiative of the Central Florida Regional Commission on Homelessness. They asked homeless people to write down something about themselves they wanted others to know, and then were photographed holding the sign. Inspired by the images that gave people a voice, Jon suggested I take on the project which led me to introduce the idea to the students of my social reportage class at the Flower City Arts Center. While this session has been dedicated to documenting the Open Door Mission’s soon to open women and children’s shelter and the families that will be living there, the class incorporated what we now call, The Sign Project.

A man of peace by Kristy Bianchi @blackdiamondcreative

Starting out on the fieldwork all roads seemed to lead to St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester. There students immersed themselves in the lives of the patrons, enjoying dinner and conversation with some pretty cool characters. I once read the quote, 

“How do you take pictures of somebody in a way that brings them to the table instead of putting them on the menu?” – Sharita Towne

I’ve since pondered that and with The Sign Project, I have seen it in action. Through this project the people we encountered had a voice. They were not just a subject in a photo, but instead they made a statement through their written words combined with the images created by the student photographers.

Jerome by Julie Oldfield

In May, Flower City Arts Center will be hosting an exhibition of images from The Sign Project celebrating the diverse men and women we worked with. This exhibit will be held at St. Joseph’s House of Hospitality with more info to come…stay tuned!


Socially Engaged Photojournalism

The socially engaged photographer is the affected photographer, one who akin to activists, are:
nullSo much so that they are affected to take action and raise awareness while attracting the public’s attention surrounding current social concerns.

Social Reportage Session III: Farmworkers in upstate New York harvest produce working long days exposed to extreme heat and pesticides. Arleen Thaler

It can allude to a humanly dire classification of photojournalism that commits to capturing images of those who are impoverished, marginalized, victimized or disadvantaged, while being immersive in nature.

Social Reportage Session III: Farmworkers in upstate New York take a break near the end of the harvest season. 52 Jamaican seasonal workers share a 12 unit encampment while away from their family for extended periods of time. Arleen Thaler
Social Reportage Session III: Farmworkers in upstate New York celebrate their last evening on the farm before leaving for their homeland of Jamaica in the morning to reunite with their family. Near the end of the evening the farmowner appears to thank them for their hard work, the send off was fraught with emotion while the workers shrunk back into the darkness away from their boss. Arleen Thaler

Social documentary in America began with photographers such as Jacob Riis, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks capturing images of the depression and urban decay. The Farm Security Administration (FSA) hired these photographers to capture images of poor farmers, while the Information Division of FSA’s goal was to “Introduce America to Americans”

The same goal is the primary focus of the Social Reportage course I teach here at the Flower City Arts Center, to “Introduce Rochester to Rochesterians” Students of past social reportage classes have covered relevant topics to include migrant and seasonal farmworkers in upstate, NY, Rochester’s refugees and homelessness.

Portraits of residents of the Open Door Mission’s Samaritan House. Arleen Thaler 

Over the next several months, students will be involved with capturing images of the Open Door Mission’s mission to help provide for and house women and children with a new women’s shelter. These images will be used to raise awareness of a much needed service to our homeless women.

I look forward to sharing our journey with you and it is my hope that the images coming forth will encourage you, inspire you, outrage you and elicit you to take action.

So Long 2016

As most of us can attest 2016 was filled with many highs and big year-end lows with election results dividing us in many ways. As a Photo Artist-in-Residence at Flower City Arts Center, I am using photography as a tool to help bridge that divide and to unite us. In the Autumn of 2016 I began photo walks with students and members. These walks brought us into neighborhoods in Rochester, NY, and gave us the opportunity to connect with real people instead of a sea of avatars.

Over the next couple weeks, Megan Charland and myself will be building a wall map of the #ROC where participants will be hanging their photos. This exhibit will not only allow our community to view the images, but to use the photographs to create conversation. We are currently planning a reception for the project where participants will share their experience immersing themselves within communities different than their own.

Part of the inspiration behind this project comes from my own experience immersing myself with the different communities in Rochester and my want to find a way to use social media in a positive way. It is easy to get caught up in division social media can create. Taking a break from the screen, hitting the streets to meet and greet people in person is vital to realizing we really are a lot more alike than the differences portrayed on the interweb.

Happy New Year!

Listening while Capturing

Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” ~Stephen R. Covey

Sometimes in the excitement of capturing an image, we lose sight of the story that makes up the person by not being present.

One of the most important lessons I hope for participants of my photo field trips and social reportage classes to learn is one of being able to truly listen to their subject. Listening is a highly effective habit of the socially engaged photographer. Taking the time to not only listen but to understand the message helps to capture an image that is filled with emotion. This past Saturday, the Photo Field Trip Session II, put their listening skills into practice as we explored the southwest quadrant of Rochester, NY. Strolling along West Main Street, the group met several people who shared their stories with us as we enjoyed colorful conversations about, race, the community and politics. By listening to the members that make up a community, especially a community in distress, we can then create those conversations for change. Imagery combined with life stories can become the foundation for solutions.

When you listen, you not only hear the emotion in your subject, you see it in their expressions. The longer you spend time getting to know them, you become aware of those nuances that make a memorable photo. 

Photographing the same thing as everyone else

Something I have struggled with as a photographer before facilitating photography classes at the Genesee Center for the Arts and Education is photographing the same thing as everyone else. Be it a social event, festival, protest, etc., if there were others with a camera capturing images, I didn’t want to be one of them. Then I found myself instructing small groups of people in photo field trips, street photography and social reportage classes. Through this I learned to let go and jumped in, realizing each person sees the world through their own unique lens and though sometimes photos of the same subject by multiple photographers may look alike, they are very different.

An example can be seen on Canon’s The Lab: Decoy. Canon Australia devised The Lab, a series of experiments that are designed to take you out of your comfort zone, and get you thinking and shooting in a different way. Their first experiment involves having six photographers shoot the same man, but they are each told a different story about the actor’s background.

Each photographer having a different background history of the subject, who is an actor, may have helped the images to be different…more so than if each participant had met the subject and told nothing.

The Photo Field Trips are much the same way, we happen upon strangers around each corner, students engage while the story unfolds, each capturing different views of the same subject. Getting to know the person or persons you are photographing and listening to leaves very little room for judgement. Images become a part of the story, a gift to the socially engaged photographer, their subject and the viewer.