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Tanya Schmid's Photography Exhibition is More Than a Senior Project

May 16, 2011

Photographer Tanya Schmid '11 has had no shortage of incredible photo opportunities over the past four years. Her experiences hiking the Appalachian Trail, camping in the Maine wilderness, leading a canoe trip for incoming freshman, winning an amateur snowboarding competition, driving solo across the country, even spending a night in a subway, would leave even the most casual of photographers with a collection of wall-worthy shots.But for Schmid, who likes to challenge her optimistic worldview by confronting its ugly realities, she says, those aren't the kinds of photo ops she's looking for.

Schmid's senior project in photography and Spanish, which opened as an exhibition on May 18 at the Vermont Arts Exchange in North Bennington, gives a better indication of where she likes to aim her lens.

"I want to open people's eyes to the injustices in the world, the beauty and the solidarity," she says. 

With More Than a Number, Schmid's second exhibition at the VAE in as many years, she's somehow managed to evoke all three.

Through photographs and testimonies, More Than a Number tells the story of a low-income neighborhood in Arica, Chile—a city she visited while studying abroad last year—where, more than 20 years ago, the dumping of arsenic, lead, and 14 other toxic minerals has had devastating health effects on its residents.

"There are more than 5,000 people who live there, all of whom have been greatly affected by the contamination," Schmid says. "Some have died. Some are suffering from cancer, kidney failure, bone deterioration, severe headaches, learning disabilities, miscarriages, and malformation."

From speaking with the local community, or more importantly, listening to them—something Schmid says that no one has been doing—she discovered that the Chilean government has only recently acknowledged the unspeakable conditions in Arica, and, even still, the residents have not been relocated, nor have they received adequate health care, compensation, or education.

Eighty-two year-old Bernarda Gonzales Gonzales (pictured above) has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years. Suffering from a painful joint disease known as arthrosis, and having recently been diagnosed with bone cancer, she told Tanya that it feels like her bones are dissolving into sand. Without health insurance or government assistance, she's living out her final years in pain.
 
"They don't do anything," Gonzales said of the government. "It isn't convenient for them to evaluate and diagnose our illnesses. All they do is give us vitamins."

Fifty-three year-old Matilde Mamani Villafán (pictured in wheelchair) is also suffering from cancer. Having once weighed more than 250 lbs., the disease has left her frail and weak—at one point a mere 55 lbs.

"During our conversation," Schmid recalls, "there was an hour in which she cried and cried, letting out all of her pain, her history, all of her hopes and dreams. It was by far the most difficult interview that I conducted. Yet it was also the most beautiful and powerful."

Priscila Agüero Muñoz (pictured left), whose ten-year-old son's undiagnosed skin disease has left scabs all over his body, wonders, "How many years of the same? The politicians come, they give us promises, hope, answers, and then they always leave us empty handed. We are still living here and we still haven't received any help."

Schmid hopes her exhibition will help to change that.

"My objective in this project has been to create more consciousness about the problem, and, hopefully, to give the contaminated families a voice, so they can be recognized as more than a number, as real human beings who have the right to be heard, and the right to live dignified, healthy, secure lives."

Schmid plans to bring the exhibition back to Chile in September to be shown in Santiago, Valparaíso, and finally, Arica, before arranging exhibitions in other U.S. cities. For Schmid, More Than a Number has been much more than her senior project.

"It's been one of the most incredible, challenging, and rewarding experiences of my life."