The Urgent State of Childcare
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman’s apocalyptic photos expose the urgent state of childcare in America. Written by Ellyn Kail of Feature Shoot.
Sunrise to Sunset: The lack of quality, affordable child care is a barrier to full equality for women in the workplace. This barren scene illustrates that the burden of child care is most often on the backs of women, many of whom are single. The task of caring for children is undervalued, where child care workers (mostly women) are often underpaid, under-trained and over burdened with responsibility.
The Promised Land: The equality gap between today’s American children is seen in this ambient, mysteriously Arcadian landscape. There is a widening, possibly insurmountable, gulf between those who grow up in poverty and those raised with economic comforts.
Beneath a carefully constructed veneer of cartoons, sing-alongs, and happy meals, suggest photographers Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, lies a sinister and painful reality for many American children. In order to visualize the wide chasm that separates the welfare of children of wealthy families from those without access to safe and reliable childcare, the duo partnered with the Economic Hardship Reporting Project to construct Watch Me Grow, a series of frightful and prophetic scenes in which the assumed gaiety of childhood belies the painful truth about the dire situation faced by millions of youngsters.
Ciurej and Lochman first embarked on what would eventually become Watch Me Grow in 2009, when they began shooting the exteriors of childcare facilities in Milwaukee, where Lochman is based. At around the same time that they were capturing these brightly colored, cheerful facades featuring Disney characters, upbeat slogans, and cute, playful names like “Kiddie Kollege” or “ABC Academy,” they encountered a 2010 story by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel entitled Cashing in on Kids. The report, penned by journalist Raquel Rutledge, outlined the phenomenon by which under-qualified workers tended to children who might otherwise be in school.
After reading of harrowing incidents, including one in which an eight-year-old girl was held at gunpoint while at daycare in what police believed to be a drug-related ordeal, the photographers further investigated the problem by digging up various other reports and papers and by speaking with working mothers and educators suffering the consequences of sub-par childcare.
It wasn’t until 2015, when the duo came into contact with Alissa Quart of EHRP, that their goal of bringing to light the neglect of impoverished children and families was realized. In order to expose both the severity of the situation and the deceptive marketing that conceals it, they carefully built a series of miniature sets where the cutesy and the catastrophic collide.
The babies, explains Ciurej, were painted different colors to represent a diversity of children affected by poor childcare, and the sets themselves were made using objects that we often associate with child’s play, including toys, craft paper, cotton, and paper mache. Ciurej and Lochman pulled inspiration from both 19th century romantic painting and modern apocalyptic cinema to convey the drama and magnitude of the circumstance. Says Ciurej, “Perhaps by contemplating worst case child care scenarios, we could stimulate ideas about an equitable and compassionate alternative.”
Ciurej and Lochman chose to tackle an individual issue with each image, titling them with text taken directly from signage used by childcare facilities. Ciurej defines these words as “broken promises.” Neither photographer could predict the emotional toll the subject would take, but ultimately, each understands that this problem is one that needs urgently to be addressed. With poor funding and social disparities as they are today, future generations hang in the balance. “All of our children deserve a voice, and we hope this work will serve as a call to action,” conclude the artists.
Guardians of Our Angels: The tortured commercialism of childhood is exemplified by Disney characters like Mickey Mouse in this volcanic image. These and other “kiddie icons” paper over the economic and emotional lack at the center of many contemporary American childhoods.
Children in Heavenly Hands: Swirling through this landscape is a hellish image of the many limits on educational and other opportunities for working families who cannot afford to pay for childcare. In Illinois in 2015, stricter income guidelines have slashed the amount a welfare applicant can earn to $10,000 for a family of three. Only 10% of families once considered eligible for subsidized childcare will qualify. Cuts have been called draconian.
The Tree of Knowledge: The tree of knowledge is blasted by the apocalyptic blow back from diminished funding for child care in this landscape. Subsidies to parents for affordable quality care are being slashed and training for child care workers is disappearing. The very foundations of providing for young children have been undermined.
Over the Top: This chilling image symbolizes some of the challenges to both middle- and low-income parents. Stagnating class mobility starts with neighborhoods and towns that are child care “service deserts,” where finding quality, affordable and accessible child care is difficult, with limited openings and long waiting lists.
Living in Destiny: Poverty is socially isolating, leaving few choices and resources. Low income, poor health, inadequate education and family instability are often correlated at the individual and community level. There is nowhere to turn, leaving children stranded between the impossibility of moving up or turning back for support, as depicted in this image.
Little Fish in the Sea: Many services for children in this country are simply a brightly colored illusion, treating kids as if they are disposable, akin to plastic toys. Ill-equipped children must chart a course for their future across a sea of junk, as they do in this image. In an overly commodified culture, we should ask what kind of public spaces and values we want to make available to our children.
Barbara Ciurej and Lindsay Lochman, collaborators from Chicago and Milwaukee respectively, create photographic projects that address the confluence of history, myth and popular culture.
Co-published with Feature Shoot.