This post was written by Twila Rios, Summer Intern in the department of Prints, Photographs and Architectural Collections.
The New-York Historical Society has two collections of photographer Claire Yaffa: the Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection and the Claire Yaffa New York Foundling Hospital photograph collection. A portion of the Children with Aids photograph collection is currently on exhibit at N-YHS, through September 1, 2013.
When looking through these collections a few impressions stand out. First I am struck by the level of trust that must have existed between Yaffa and her subjects. Yaffa is able to capture relaxed and genuine portraits of people, often in trying circumstances. I am amazed also at the courage it must have taken to do some of these projects. Most of the children Yaffa met at the Incarnation Children’s Center died within the ten years that she photographed there. Yaffa even took photos at their funerals, sometimes with only Yaffa and a few staff in attendance.
Yaffa’s courage to take on difficult topics was not limited to the Children with AIDS photos. She photographed the homeless of Westchester County, and also photographed extensively at the programs of the New York Foundling Hospital. Her photos are full of humor, hope and joy despite grim circumstances. She also insures we see real human beings rather than only the issues at hand.
Yaffa was prepared to dislike the mothers she photographed at the Foundling’s Temporary Shelter and Crisis Nursery, which were programs to help abused children and their parents. But interacting with the mothers, she began to see them as victims also; individuals as much in need of care and support as their children. Yaffa then discovered that her photos of mothers with their children were having an interesting effect. In the smiling, loving photos Yaffa captured the mothers could see themselves as good parents. They could believe that change was possible and have faith in a happier future for themselves and their children.
The photos in the two Claire Yaffa collections document the Incarnation Children’s Center and the New York Foundling Hospital in the 80’s and 90’s. The finding aids can be found via the NYU finding aids portal at Guide to the Claire Yaffa Children with AIDS photograph collection, and Guide to the Claire Yaffa New York Foundling Hospital photograph collection. The two collections are available for viewing during regular library hours by advance appointment (to schedule an appointment, email firstname.lastname@example.org).