What We Do
Photography changes the ways families are formed
Diane Granito, co-founder of the Heart Gallery America and adoption outreach specialist, describes how photographs play an important role in the adoption process.
There are many statistics surrounding adoption and foster care in America. On any given day, 500,000 children live in foster care due to abuse and neglect, and 118,000 of them can never return home to their biological families. Nineteen thousand children “age out” each year without being adopted; they have nobody to turn to with their joys and heartaches when they head out into the world, alone. “Waiting children” is the term used to describe children waiting for a family to adopt them. The Heart Gallery was developed by the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department in 2001 to speed up that process by harnessing the unique talents of professional photographers to raise awareness about foster children available for adoption.
Photographers volunteer to capture their unique spirits in portraits which—shown in exhibitions in art galleries, public spaces, and online—have helped child advocates find homes for hundreds of foster children considered “hard to place” due to their ages or the fact that they come with siblings. Thanks to extensive national media attention and the hard work of child advocates, the project has spread across the entire country.
Heart Gallery photographs show shy children wrapped in their comfort blankets, dressed up as fairy princesses, boys hugging dogs, girls sweetly laying their cheeks against horses’ necks, and siblings giggling together. The children all have one thing in common and their photographs all contain the same important message: these children are special, and need and deserve families that will give them the unconditional love they have never had.
Through the power of photography, that message is sent, received and, sometimes, acted on. In 2002, following a rare rainstorm in northern New Mexico, photographer Dan Pearlman captured five siblings leaping over a gleaming puddle together—flying high, gripping each others’ hands, laughing out loud in a moment of joy. Anyone seeing that photograph immediately understood that these were special children, and that they were close, loving brothers and sisters. When it was exhibited a few months after it was taken, a couple drawn to the portrait saw that and more—they saw their future children. The dynamic siblings are now thriving with their new family and have bright futures, thanks to having had a single, but indicative, moment in their lives captured with compassion and skill.
What is it about a simple photograph that could compel a family to adopt not one but five children? Insightful, talented, and sensitive photographers bravely open their hearts to capture what they see before them—children and their dreams and hopes, and sometimes their sadness. In turn, the compelling portraits that result reach straight into the hearts of those who see them. Heart Gallery portraits, like all good photographs, tell a story. One of our favorite New Mexico photographers, Nicole Lewin, called me after a shoot in 2004. “I couldn’t get the boys to smile at all,” she said in desperation. “They looked so lost and hurt.” The boys, Elijah and Isaiah, 4 and 5 at the time, had experienced an enormous amount of pain in their short lives. They were about to be placed in an institution because of their high-needs level. When I saw their portrait, I told Nicole not to worry, that it would speak to someone about the boys. At an opening in Roswell, New Mexico, a couple walking through the exhibit with me stopped dead in their tracks in front of the portrait. Elle Rowley stared at it and told her husband Gene, “These boys need us.” He nodded silently. When they met with social workers and discussed the boys’ situation and their serious issues, they brought a copy of their portrait with them. “We wanted to remember that these were just two little boys who needed us,” they later told me. Six months after the adoption, they all attended a New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department adoption event and photographer Jennifer Esperanza captured a sweet moment on the train ride that day. It too tells a story, one with a happy ending. The family added another boy to the brood the following year.
Heart Gallery photographers are incredibly giving and compassionate. They spend hours coaxing children from their shells so the world can see their light. They work in less than ideal conditions, lug bulky equipment to locations, forego meals and sleep, and work at their own expense. The photographers who work with us never complain, and invariably thank us for giving them the opportunity to use their skills to help these remarkable children. They knowingly expose their own hearts to the sadness that comes from understanding that the children they see through their lenses have not always had the security and love that they deserve. And, in several cases Heart Gallery photographers have made the ultimate commitment to the children they’ve photographed by opening their homes and hearts to them forever. They are as full of hope and courage as the children they so beautifully portray, and we thank them for making the Heart Gallery a reality.
- Five Siblings Jumping Over a Puddle, 2002
- Dan Pearlman