Hunger In The Valley

Students Show A Different Side Of Harrisonburg

Posted: December 6, 2012

When the students of Corinne Diop’s “Photo as Document” class shared with friends about the project they were working on, it was met with some confusion. Often, the idea of “poor” and “hungry” meant not having enough cash for a study snack.

James Madison University senior Victoria Hall said her peers told her they’d never seen someone “on the street.”

“But they’re not just on the street,” she said. “They’re people that live in houses — and that you might know — that can’t afford food.”

She’s correct about the high odds of knowing someone struggling: One in 10 individuals suffer from food insecurity in the Central Shenandoah Valley, according to the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

With an open artists’ reception on Dec. 7 at the Smith House, 311 S. Main Street, the class will present their semester-long photographic and research observations on hunger in Harrisonburg, and the efforts made locally to relieve it.

The show will be on display from Dec. 7 to Jan. 25.

The eight students’ work isn’t limited by mats and frames; their professor, Diop, said that the class expressed a desire to continue their work beyond the art show.

They’ll collect non-perishable food from visitors at the exhibit and invite viewers to contribute to the online Virtual Food Drive, at

Hidden Hungry

According to Ruth Jones, director of communication at the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, food insecurity means individuals “don’t have the resources at some point in the year to have a nutritious meal,” she said, “and so they can’t maintain a healthy and active lifestyle.”

Diop said she’d been inspired to focus on hunger in the area by previous campus exhibitions about hunger nationwide.

The “place-based” education emphasis at JMU involves learning “using what’s right here around you, and also to make an impact and be helpful to the community,” she said.

The students took their cameras to several local food pantries and community centers, including the BRAFB, Our Community Place, Hope Distributed and JMU’s Gus Bus.

Diop collaborated with Ragan McManus, executive director at the Arts Council of the Valley, to bring the showto the Smith House’s Darrin-McHone Gallery.

Helping the community through art is a natural fit, said McManus. “Artists, in general typically have large ideas about their world and their society. They speak to that through the images they make.”

She said this show in particular raises important questions about who we give our time and money to, and why we give — especially during the holidays.

Bursting The Bubble

Most of the students were surprised at their findings throughout the project.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting this many people,” said senior Donovan Seow. “Just personally, as a student, I’m not exposed to any of that …  To see this in Harrisonburg was very eye-opening for me.”

Junior Sarah Smith, whose part in the project focused on the statistics of food insecurity, agrees. “It’s one of those things where we’re all stuck in our JMU bubble and don’t know. But once you find out, it’s a really big problem,” she said.

Although their assignment was to document the issue of hunger, they often found their lenses pointed at food. “[The project] turned out [to be] about how we are trying to stop hunger in Harrisonburg,” said Diop. “I hope [viewers] realize there’s a massive effort of volunteers, places that are open every week, staffed by people who …  just do it because they care about others.”

Connecting with these volunteers and families in need meant more than a grade for these students. “It meant a lot to them to tell the story for people who might not have gotten coverage otherwise,” said Diop, “that they didn’t know until they did the research.”

For more information on the show, contact the Arts Council of the Valley at (540) 801-8779.

Contact Samantha Cole at 574-6274 or

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