For more than seven years, Judy Gelles has traveled across the country and around the world to ask more than three-hundred fourth graders three simple questions:
Who do you live with?
What do you wish for?
What do you worry about?
By photographing only their backs and displaying their answers next to them in white text, a fascinating cultural tapestry is formed. Each child she interviews is nine years old, with differences ranging in culture, economic background, and familial living. What fragments the children are class, issues ranging from that of personal matters to idealized world matters, and the presence/absence of a traditional nuclear family. What connects them are their dreams, goals, and desire to be different. By making note of what bonds them, Judy’s goal is to create worldwide curriculums that teach diversity at an early age, so all kids–and future adults–can be friends. She calls this mission Fourth Grade Project.
Gelles tells us in an interview, “I am always amazed at how sophisticated and socially conscious nine-year-olds are. This is the age when worldviews start to become entrenched and paths for the future start to become more set. Their answers reflect their culture and all of the important societal issues affecting their families and the world.”
But why, exactly, does she photograph just their backs? From an editorial/artistic standpoint, one would think the aesthetic choice of anonymity evokes a universal bond. But the answer is quite simple, according to Gelles, “I began in a local school in Philadelphia and the principal told me I could not photograph children’ s faces in the school for privacy issues. She jokingly said I could photograph their backs, not their fronts. So I did.”
As a member of the Social Justice Committee at her local synagogue her mission began in 2007 in Philadelphia in their effort to help bring reform to the epidemic of violence in the city. At the local public school they had adopted, Gelles was assigned to help students with their reading skills. When both students and herself felt a disconnect with the reading material, she decided to create a writing workshop instead. She asked them to read their own stories to her. From there, she asked three questions, which brought pages upon pages of creative writing and therapy. As a gift she wanted to give the students portraits. And starting from the very privacy issue that limited her portraits, combined with the array of voices from the fourth graders, started her art form and conversation for change.
Currently, two of Judy’s pieces are in the InLiquid display case at The Art Gallery at City Hall for the exhibition Philly VOTE! With the upcoming Democratic National Convention and Presidential Election, now more than ever, issues surrounding criminal justice, the prison system, our treatment of juveniles, and solitary confinement, have defined the national dialogue. With increased exposure on the failures of the system, and the dedication and passion of so many people, we have an opportunity to make a change on a national level.