These children burn the lens with their gaze. No matter the generation from which they come, for as long as photography has existed in New Mexico they have interrogated the adult world, asking, even pleading, “Will there be a place for me when I grow up?” “Is there a place for me now, as a child?”
Of the fifty states, New Mexico ranks dead last in child well-being. It wasn’t always so. From time out of mind New Mexico has been poor, and its immense and beautiful spaces make the delivery of social services a challenge. But in times past, before the rise of drug culture and consumerism, back when people lived closer to the land and extended families weren’t fractured by migration to the cities, maybe in those good old days New Mexico’s poverty was more salubrious, less destructive. And childhood was happier. Or maybe such notions are a myth. Perhaps through photography we can seek an answer: Look into the eyes of these kids and ask them to tell you how it was, how it is.
Searchlight New Mexico is an investigative journalism non-profit that has been probing children’s issues in New Mexico for the past two years, and we aren’t finished yet. Don Usner, a key member of Searchlight’s team, has documented those issues photographically. He conceived and curated this exhibit, in which the earliest image dates back to 1880 and the most recent is by Don himself from 2018. The purpose of this collection, however, is not to offer a strictly chronological view of childhood in New Mexico, let alone an exhaustive survey of the treatment of children in the state’s history of photography.
The images in this exhibit have been selected for their impact and for what they reveal about the world of childhood. They have also been selected for the way they speak to each other across eras, child to child, from the Great Depression to the 1970s and from the turn of the twentieth century to the day before yesterday.
Searchlight’s coverage of child well-being in New Mexico is archived on its website, searchlightnm.com, and a selection of its articles is available in Raising New Mexico, a magazine specially prepared for the 2019 legislative session and the commencement of a new gubernatorial administration. The issues that contribute to New Mexico’s dismal ranking as the worst state in the union in which to be a child will not soon go away, but they can be improved.
No one who looks into these children’s eyes can forget that they must be.
Don J. Usner was born in Embudo, N.M., and has written and provided photos for several books, including The Natural History of Big Sur; Sabino’s Map: Life in Chimayó’s Old Plaza; Benigna’s Chimayó:...
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