A black-and-white portrait of a young girl gazing into the camera hangs still, her light eyes piercing even stripped of their color. Her name is Majana, and she moved to the United States from Bosnia when she was 12-years-old after being sent to a concentration camp. She did not speak English, and her family members worked factory jobs to afford their apartment.
“When you begin something new, something like a new life, it should be great because it is a whole different and new thing. Two years ago, I found out that it wasn’t true. My beginning was a nightmare,” wrote Majana at age 14.
In Cathy Lander-Goldberg’s The Resilient Souls Project photo exhibition, photographs and primary sources recount women’s stories from 20 years ago to today. Each project participant grew up in her own city, faced her own challenge, and had her own reason for telling her story to Lander-Goldberg. A lot can happen in 20 years, but one thing continues to bind these women together: they have overcome a struggle, demonstrating resilience in the face of adversity.
On display in Kissam Center until Oct. 6, The Resilient Souls Project delves into what resilience means to each individual and looks deeper into the journey of arriving there. The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons, the Center for Student Wellbeing, Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, the Office of the Dean of Students and the Office of the Vice Provost for Learning and Residential Affairs are co-sponsoring the exhibit.
The original 1996 exhibit, “Resilient Souls: Young Women’s Portraits and Words,” shed light on issues affecting young women in their teens and twenties through black-and-white photographs and letters. Lander-Goldberg was a freelance photographer and teacher to at-risk youth. Riding on the tail end of early 1990s third-wave feminism, she wanted to open the conversation for females and connect the young women to a wider audience.
Drawing inspiration from Gloria Steinem’s “Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem” (1992) and Mary Pipher’s “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls” (1994), Lander-Goldberg said, “I learned more about what was going on in their lives, which were big issues for adolescents, and wanted to give them a voice. I felt that photography and writing were a tool to strengthen that voice.” She displayed the exhibit in St. Louis and also began hosting workshops for young women to express themselves through artistic mediums such as photojournalism and writing.
Twenty years later, Lander-Goldberg is revisiting the young women. However, they are now grown adults. Because the initial photo exhibit took place before the social media boom, tracking down the now-dispersed women proved to be a challenge. Some changed their names, went off the grid or were simply untraceable. As for those that she could find, Lander-Goldberg reopened the door to stories that defied all odds. “I initially viewed it as ‘my’ project but quickly realized it was ‘our’ project,” said Lander-Goldberg.
Thus, The Resilient Souls Project was born.
The exhibition no longer stands as a colorless collection that leaves the viewers rooting for the young women. The black-and-white “before” photograph is now brought to life by a colorful “after” portrait, along with a description or letter detailing the individual’s current situation. When asked if a certain story stuck with her, Lander-Goldberg stated, “they all stay with me because they trusted me. They didn’t have to tell me. Twenty years ago, people did not share personal things the way they do today. The girls knew I was doing the exhibit, and they trusted me.”
Whether it’s 43-year-old Freddie, who was once a 22-year-old struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, or 38 year-old Romanda, who refused to let muscular dystrophy hold her back even at 18-years-old, resilience looks different for everyone. Lander-Goldberg opened that conversation for these women and fully intends to keep it alive. She continues leading workshops and published “PHOTO EXPLORATIONS: A Girl’s Guide to Self-Discovery Through Photography, Writing and Drawing” in 2015.
With the new project, the closed-mouth and colorless photograph of Majana is balanced by a portrait 20 years later of Majana as she smiles with her infant.
“Because of this hopeful little teenager, today I am a happily married wife and mom living the American Dream,” reflected Majana as she read the letter from 20 years prior. In the most recent portrait, we see that Majana’s child has her same light eyes. And this time, they’re in color.