I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is a multiracial, economically mixed neighborhood. Here, the women pushing the strollers are almost always black and the children white. I wondered why, and my wondering became the genesis of this project, “Substitutes,” which I crated over a two-year period.
My work explores the social and economic relationships that powerfully affect life and largely go unnoticed. My images are about the things we don’t notice that we should; the things that seem natural, but aren’t.
The women in these photographs perform parenting duties. They are substitute parents. This fact leads to questions about how we as a society raise children. Being a nanny is a low-paying job where love between the nanny and child is one of the anticipated but universally unspoken duties. This is an unusual expectation in a financial transaction.
For me, the situation raised issues of racism and the exploitation of inexpensive labor. But what I found was something different. I was surprised by the warmth and honesty of both the employed and their employers. Most of the nannies were primarily interested in having a job and paying their bills; most moms had grappled with uncomfortable issues of parenting, race and economics. Most say race doesn’t matter. But if race doesn’t matter, why these persistent racial divides?
When I was young, a wonderful woman named Martha took care of me; she was black and I am white. I haven’t seen Martha for over 30 years, but I remember her face as if I’d seen her yesterday. “Substitutes” is about the indelible impressions these women leave, and the persistent questions they raise.