Melissa Owens stood, staring at two stark, black-and-white photographs. In one photograph, she is huddled in a corner, her hands covering her head. In another, a young girl stands, looking away from the camera and off to the horizon.
The pictures, taken by University of North Alabama student Nicole DeVaney, are inspired by Owens’ story.
It’s a story of how neglect and abuse from her family drove Owens to drugs and alcohol and how she finally rose up and pieced her life together.
“This was me from the time I was very small to the time I was 18,” Owens said as she pointed to the picture of the young girl cowering in the corner.
Owens said her life was shackled by poverty growing up. She recalled washing clothes in a bathtub and doing without air conditioning or heat.
“On so very many different occasions, I can remember it,” Owens said, referring back to the picture. “So when I saw it, paired with the piece, it brings me back.
“But it’s not a sadness. Like I told (DeVaney), when you’ve been down like that, you can appreciate being up so much.
“Which is kind of this one where she’s up and she’s walking. It’s gorgeous. (DeVaney) has done a perfect job.”
The pictures were on display as part of the “Through the Lens: Shining the light on Child Abuse and Neglect” at the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts in Florence.
The gallery showing was created by the Lauderdale County branch of Court Appointed Special Advocate.
CASA is an organization of volunteers who are advocates for children in foster care.
The director of CASA in Lauderdale County, Andrea Holt, said the Shoals is fortunate to have two Casa programs, one in Lauderdale County and one in Colbert County. There are only 11 CASA programs in Alabama.
“We’ve grown quite a bit in the last three years,” Holt said. “We train volunteers and work with volunteers who are actually coming involved in the lives of these abusive children to make sure that their needs are met when they are in foster care and to make sure there is a consistent, caring adult in their life to help them through this process.”
CASA was founded in 1974 in Seattle when a juvenile court judge decided more information was needed about children before making rulings. Since the social welfare system was already overburdened, a volunteer system was decided upon. CASA was brought to Lauderdale County in 2002 by Judge Larry Mack Smith.
Holt said she spent a week going through national and local stories of child abuse to give to the photographers who agreed to work with CASA on this event. The photographers were free to choose their own models and come up with their own interpretation from the stories.
“They have chosen to take things away from the stories that were important to them and capture what that story inspired them to capture,” Holt said.
DeVaney, who is studying advanced photography at UNA, said she was excited to work with CASA on this project.
“First I just scanned over it when I first got it, then I read the story and probably read it about 50 times, because I would keep reading it and I would break down crying,” DeVaney said. “I never went through anything like that, but I just felt a connection to her. So I just kept breaking down crying, and I knew instantly what I wanted to shoot and what I had to do. And so I called my little cousin Alissa who is the model, and we went out and shot it. And I just - I don’t think I could get anything better. I was so happy with it.”
One of DeVaney’s pictures was purchased at the gallery by Inita Himber, a woman who helped Owens get back on her feet when she was in the hospital.
“She came in the hospital, and she just picked me up out of the gutter and she’s been with me ever since,” Owens said. “So she’s just like my mom, and she just bought the picture.”
Owens added that seeing the pictures displayed and in a position to help an organization such as CASA was an emotionally gratifying experience.
“This is the first time anybody has ever interpreted the story with pictures like that,” Owens said. “There is an esoteric nature. I can look at it and know exactly what the picture is saying. Sometimes, these stories are so dark and people don’t talk about them that much, other people I wonder if they can see what I see.”
Bobby Bozeman can be reached at 256-740-5722 or email@example.com