Story of My Life

By Carrie Stokes (’12)

In 2010, local photographer Christine Rucker began a pro bono project at Group Homes of Forsyth, a non-profit organization that serves developmentally disabled adults.  Her small project grew when she began collaborating with Phoebe Zerwick, a lecturer in the Writing and Journalism programs at Wake Forest University, and Michelle Johnson, a multimedia producer.

With a Wake Forest University Humanities Institute Winston-Salem Partners grant, Zerwick, Rucker, and Johnson spent more than a year documenting the lives of six individuals who are residents of Group Homes of Forsyth and developing “Story of My Life,” a multimedia digital humanities project that seeks to support and provide a platform for the voices of those who are often marginalized by the larger culture.

Zerwick

Phoebe Zerwick, Lecturer in Writing and Journalism at Wake Forest University

Having little interaction with developmentally disabled adults prior to her work with Group Homes of Forsyth, Zerwick was particularly amazed at the sense of community felt among the residents and the very full and rich lives they lead.  Still, there were challenges in interpreting and communicating the stories of those residents, particularly those who could not speak.

Initially, the inability of the some of the residents to verbally communicate challenged Zerwick, a journalist, whose ability to express herself in words is paramount to her profession.  Transcending limitations, the team found a particular multimedia storytelling platform that allowed them to creatively tell residents’ stories without narration.

Along the way, they discovered the variety and complexity of ways in which these individuals communicate with one another and their loved ones.  “Their lives might have seemed closed off on first observation,” Rucker noted. “But if you took the time to sit with them and just take in what they had to offer, each person was unique and rich with personality.”

In the hope that the Story of My Life project would represent to viewers the complete humanity of these individuals without qualification, the team was intentional about not prefacing their diagnoses in the features.  Rucker’s sister, LeAnne, has learning disabilities and lived in a group home for 10 years. “I wanted to tell the stories of each of these individuals the way I would hope another photographer would take the time to tell my sister’s story,” she said.

“I am always drawn to humor,” Zerwick commented. “These are serious pieces, but they are filled with laughter and joy. I like that.” When discussing the strengths of the collaboration, Zerwick commented that Rucker’s photographs captured moments of emotional connection in the room others missed and that Johnson sometimes heard otherwise unnoticed music.

“I hope that the project will touch audiences and take them into the everyday lives of people they might never otherwise encounter.  I also hope that it accords the residents the dignity that each of them possesses,” Johnson said.  “I’ve said it many times over the course of this work — that we started with the words of theologian Henri Nouwen ringing in our heads: “What makes us human is not our mind but our heart. It is not our ability to think but our ability to love.””

As the project unfolded, not only did it grow to include the added goal of teaching the Group Homes residents how to begin chronicling and telling their own stories through photography, it also generated an emerging collaboration with the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in downtown Winston-Salem.  The residents of Group Homes of Forsyth featured in the Story of My Life project will spend the summer working in an intimate setting with Sawtooth instructors to create sculptures made of found objects. The sculptures, their photography and the video profiles on the Story of My Life website, will be on display this fall at the Sawtooth School.

The short features and a description of the project can be found at http://shawneestreetmedia.wix.com/story-of-my-life.

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