Women In Photography
Claire Yaffa Portrays Hard Hitting Issues

When Claire Yaffa showed her photographs to Cornell Capa, he said, "You take pretty pictures, Yaffa, but what do you really want to say?" Yaffa thought long and hard about the question. She had always been interested in the problem of child abuse, so in 1979 she contacted Dr. Vincent Fontana, Medical Director of the New York Foundling Hospital. At the hospital she began to photograph young mothers and their children and watched as many of them changed from abusive to loving parents.

In one image a young woman sits, head in hands, next to a crib where her child lies sleeping. The sad story is told in the image. Ten years later the photographs resulted in a small exhibition at the International Center for Photography in New York and were published in a monograph called Reaching Out. Mayor Mario Cuomo commended Yaffa for the "poignant exhibition that reminds us once again that a picture is worth a thousand words," and Cornell Capa acknowledged Yaffa's passion and commitment in photographing the difficulties of mothers and their children. "Her lens and heart fused," he said, "and the images reflect the emotions and frustrations she witnessed."

"Photography is a wonderful thing in my life," Yaffa says, "and I have been privileged to know a lot of people in the world of photography." She studied with Philippe Halsman and took a workshop with W. Eugene Smith. She also formed a lifelong friendship with Lisette Model with whom she studied at the New School in New York. "Model said to me once, `Dear, don't ever take a photograph unless it hits you in the pit of your stomach.' These people had a wonderful professionalism and love of the medium and I had a great respect for their talents. To be in their presence was inspiring."

Yaffa had been a model and an actress and had married at age 19. She returned to school, graduated from Sara Lawrence, and worked as a research technician at Memorial Sloan-Kettering until her first son was born in 1966. It was at that time she discovered photography. Working with a friend, who was preparing photographs in his laboratory for the Museum of Modern Art, Yaffa decided to become a photographer and began to build a business--starting out by taking pictures of her own son, then photographing her friends' children.

Her work became more serious in nature when she began to address the topics of child abuse, homelessness, and children with AIDS. It was the photographer Barbara Morgan who pointed out to Yaffa that her subjects were very easy to sensationalize. It was easier to portray suffering and man's inhumanity than to celebrate life and show the survivors, the people who, despite adversity, can come through. Yaffa realized that what she was saying was don't choose things that are sensational. "Even though I move toward subjects that disturb me," she says, "I try to emphasize their humanity. I was not prepared to like these women who would burn or hit a child. But, after spending so much time with them and learning about their lives, what had been done to them, and how they were trying to change, I tried through my photography to show them as the people they were. They were not the monsters I had expected them to look like. Some of them I couldn't like and some couldn't change, but I felt it was important to portray them as people. It is my hope the images of mothers and children in these photographs will make a difference in how we respond to the problems of child abuse and that we can view them as human beings who are in need of our help, compassion, and understanding. I remember taking a picture of a woman named Sharon and her son and she said, `You know I never liked him until I saw the photograph you took of him.' Because she saw him only as a burden, she didn't really look at him."

Yaffa's photography is saying, "Hey, pay attention--look here--we have to do something to help these people." For a year she went to the homeless shelters in Westchester County and she recalled a young woman there named Dianne, who she photographed after her family was burned out of their home. Dianne had rescued flowers from the garbage and she had them in a tin can on her windowsill. Her little girl was eating peas out of a can and she told the child that she must eat from a dish. Even in the shelter this woman maintained a kind of dignity. The key picture in the series shows a 6-year-old girl with one of two pigeons she had rescued from a parking lot. She is in a hotel for the homeless and when Yaffa asked her what she would do with the pigeons when they were healthy, the child answered she would release them so they could find their way home again. Finding Their Way Home Again became the title for Yaffa's photographic essay and exhibition at the Bridge Gallery in White Plains, New York, this past March. In the exhibition, children and adults share their lodgings and in one photograph a man lies in a bed numbered 2, his arms behind his head, a sign over his head reading, "Look to this Day."

The series of children with AIDS began in 1990 at the Incarnation Children's Center in New York. The monograph "A Dying Child is Born: The Story of Tracy," marks the 13 month life span of a child born prematurely with the AIDS virus, her mother having left the hospital and abandoning her after giving birth. An exhibition of the Children with AIDS is currently touring the US and Europe. Yaffa is now preparing a publication titled A Dying Child Reborn. A result of her 10 year study, the photographs in the book emphasize the changes and needs of these children as they reach their teen-age years.

Yaffa's compassionate eye looks squarely at the needs and problems of our society. Some of her most powerful images document Westchester County survivors and rescuers of the Holocaust. "These people are now dying and I wanted to tell their story," she says. Remembering Together, is a moving piece that was exhibited in the Bridge Gallery in White Plains in 1992.

Since 1988 Yaffa has been a stringer for the New York Times and has also worked for the Associated Press. "I love the newspaper work because you never know who you are going to run up against or who you are going to be called to photograph. One story was of a man living in Westchester who was a former member of Heaven's Gate in California. He had been inaccessible and was not sure he wanted to be photographed. We met in a diner and by the time our meeting was over, he had invited me home to meet his wife and child. He was a former priest and we built a trust and he allowed me to take my photographs. I have photographed everything from Kykuit, the Rockerfeller estate in Westchester with its underground gallery containing hundreds of paintings, Chinese ceramics and sculpture, to the memorial last June celebrating the life of Betty Shabazz on the anniversary of her death. Most memorable was the day I covered a murder for the Associated Press in Greenberg near White Plains. It was snowing and sleeting and I was hiding out in a house across the street from the crime scene. I had slipped and fallen and it was then that I realized that I would do anything for a picture."

Yaffa works in black and white and started out shooting square format, first with a Rolleiflex camera, then a Hasselblad. The Nikon FM2 became her first 35mm and she now uses a Leica M6. "What was my children's playroom has become my darkroom and I process all my own film," she says. "I could be down there forever --it is so safe (except for the chemicals, maybe) and when I walk in there, I feel I am home."
In 1988 Yaffa took her first pictures for her book Light and Shadow, published by Aperture. "Light and Shadow is a celebration of life and its fragility," says Yaffa. "These photographs were a gift and they existed for just a moment. Then they were gone. I saw them and many times I said, `Oh, my God...'" The images, abstractions of flower stems and parts of the figure as well as landscapes, are defined by light and shadow and have been selected by the Camera Obscura Gallery in Colorado for Yaffa's second exhibition at the gallery.

With a beautiful foreword by Gordon Parks and poetry by Jeffery Beam, the imagery contains none of Yaffa's photojournalistic work, but portrays rather her closeness to nature and to life with its abstractions, poignancy, and poetry. Photographer Duane Michals wrote on the jacket of the book, "Claire has evolved toward one of the great timeless photographic traditions, the study of form, light, and their sensual interplay--the most profound ingredients of all photography."