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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Demystifying Local Homelessness With 'Coffee & Conversation'

Courtesy of Liz LaVorgna
'Veronica And Chad.' Part of Brattleboro photographer Liz LaVorgna's series, 'Coffee & Conversation: Stories of Homelessness."

Artists don't often begin a new project with a problem statement but that is just how Brattleboro photographer Liz LaVorgna got the inspiration for Coffee & Conversation: Stories Of Homelessness.

She and a small group of community members saw that homelessness in Brattleboro was on the rise and they wanted to do something to end the stigma and seclusion people without stable housing face.

Armed with her camera and lots of support from the community, LaVorgna teamed Brattleboro residents who had stable housing and those who don't together in different settings through the town and photographed them as they sipped hot coffee and got to know each other.

LaVorgna recently spoke with VPR about the project.

On 'Coffee & Conversation'

"Coffee & Conversation actually came out of conversations that started at The Works Bakery in Brattleboro on how can we end the stigma of homelessness and how can we help the homeless in town. It's a photo exhibit that shows two people having a cup of coffee and conversation - one person who has stable housing and one person who does not have stable housing. And really, the magic that happens when the photo shoot happens as well as after is really amazing. People were able to connect and stay connected. In addition to the photography exhibit, we are also having an art wall where artists are donating art and the proceeds of the art will go towards, hopefully, buying phones for the homeless in town.'

Credit Courtesy of Liz LaVorgna
'Mike and Ezlerh' from LaVorgna's Series 'Coffee & Conversation.'

On Why We Might Stigmatize People Who Are Homeless

"... I think people are afraid. They don't really know what to say to each other. People are so used to being in their own world with their own situation. There is also the fear could be that maybe they are one step away from being homeless themselves and it's hard to take a look at that and seeing yourself in that position.... sometimes just a kind word or meeting someone's eyes can really make a big difference in someone's day."

On Setting Up The Photo Sessions

"Effie Mayhew from the Drop-In Center has been instrumental in getting people involved in wanting to be part of this project. The other members are acquaintances or other artists that I know, people in town who really want to make a change. These photo sessions were an ice-breaker, if you will, to be able to connect two people who had never met...I think this is a project that can lay the foundation for creating a common ground, creating some dialogue and hopefully enable people to treat people as people."

Credit Courtesy of Liz LaVorgna
'Serena and Maggie' from LaVorgna's Series 'Coffee & Conversation.'

On The Exhibit and Coffee Hours At The River Garden Gallery

"This is just an invitation for people to get together and have coffee and conversation with people, hopefully with someone they haven't met before. We have some conversation-starter cards there. That way they'll be able to have a conversation and just hopefully be able to connect and really continue that connection, moving forward."

On The Connections Made During Photo Shoots

"It's instant... and they find these things where they are  very similar and they would have never... would have known that we are so similar. It's almost like amazing and mind-blowing to them... I've gotten that feedback afterwards, like, 'Wow, I had no idea what to expect and what are the odds that I meet this person today!' In addition to the photographs at the exhibit, we're going to have a video and audio piece. So, you'll be able to scan a code next to the photograph and hear people's stories, so you can kind of hear a snippet of these conversations."

Credit Courtesy of Liz LaVorgna
'Lawrence and Nicole' from LaVorgna's series 'Coffee & Conversation.'

On Challenges

" was a challenge for me to think about how can I take pictures of people having coffee and make that interesting! So, creatively, it was a little bit of a challenge. I think more than ever, in any project that I've done, I've really gotten an outpouring of community support. I feel... arms around me... as far as people wanting to help and support. And then, this is what our hope was, people want to then say, 'This is great and now I have this idea and I want to do this' and that's already starting to happen... I say 'we' because I'm the photographer in this project but it's a six-person team, really. We're a big happy team, pushing this forward! This is an opportunity for me to kind of reach out and say, 'Okay, as a community, what can we do? What can we do to make change?' And, we may all be individuals but together we can actually do something. And I really feel like that's what's happening here."

'Coffee & Conversation: Stories of Homeless' by Liz LaVorgna and Wyatt Andrews opens Friday, Dec. 4 at The River Garden Gallery in Brattleboro and the exhibit is up through the month of December.

Check out LaVorgna's video on the project to learn more:

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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