- Associated Press - Monday, January 16, 2017

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (AP) - Sometimes you need to get personal with your subject to truly capture the essence of a specific moment.

For Belinda Soncini, a freelance photographer from Boston interested in documenting social issues, the best way to capture the human experience was to follow the daily lives of homeless families living in motels. Not wanting to miss great photo opportunities for her “Taking Shelter” documentary photography exhibit, she closely followed the families for two years.

“I felt like their story needed to be told, and their experience needed to be validated,” said Soncini, whose work is on display until Feb. 25 at Amazing Things Art Center in Framingham.

Soncini said she first got interested in the project while she was drinking coffee at a cafe. From where she was sitting, she said she noticed a lot of families hanging out in the parking lot of the Natick Travelodge on Rte. 9. It was evident those families were not on vacation, but living there. She grabbed her camera and went to investigate.

Soncini said she saw the families going about their daily lives as best they could by cooking meals, bringing their children to school, and even playing baseball in the parking lot of the motel.

“These places become like a community, like its own neighborhood,” said Soncini. “These people tried to make a life as normal as possible.”

Soncini said people lose their homes due to a number of reasons including becoming ill, or losing a job. For some who grew up in poverty, being homeless is all they have ever known.

“This can happen to anyone,” said Soncini.

“I think they are very compelling images about an important subject,” said Kip Langello, Soncini’s husband. “It’s difficult to look at them and not think about people who are struggling.”

Soncini said she became very close to the subjects in her photos, and was able to see how they made the most out of their situation by sometimes looking to humor. Soncini spoke about a photo she took of a 64-year-old woman named Kathy holding up a Marilyn Monroe poster. Soncini said it was Kathy’s favorite item, one of the few she was able to keep when she lost her home. Kathy’s last name was omitted for privacy reasons.

“Their story validates the resiliency of the human spirit,” said Soncini. “Every day was a test, and every day they tried.”

Along with the moments of laughter, Soncini said there were moments when she cried. One example was a photo she took of a single mother with four children packing everything they had in black trash bags because they were being relocated to a shelter.

“Imagine having everything you own in a plastic bag,” said Soncini. “I saw how these families tried to make these places a home, while waiting for a home.”

“We live detached from what real poverty is. We drive by these places and do not know what happens inside,” said Cambridge’s Edith Pieper while viewing Soncini’s exhibit.

Honesty and sincerity helped open people up to the idea of having their lives documented, Soncini said.

“I am very honest,” said Soncini. “I would show them the photos, and we would talk about them, I was 100 percent real with these people.”

For the families she followed, some were sent to shelters, and some were housed in apartments. She is still photographing them, saying the project is ongoing.

“The photography is wonderful, you are right there,” said Francine Vidockler, another gallery spectator, from Newton. “It is evocative, and it is something we need to see.”

According to the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, as of this week 104 families are living in hotels/motels and 3,395 families in shelters. In January 2015, 1,500 families were living in hotels or motels. The decreasing number of hotel dwellers is due to Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration effort to rehouse families living in hotels and motels. As a result, the administration has reduced the population sheltered in hotels and motels by more than 90 percent. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation that guarantees shelter to families and their children, said Samantha Kaufman, deputy director of communication for EHEC.

“We have also significantly increased our investments in affordable housing across the commonwealth, focusing funding on housing options specifically geared toward homeless families or those at high risk of becoming homeless,” said Paul McMorrow, director of policy and communications for the agency.

Soncini also teaches young children in homeless shelters about photography. In her exhibit she featured the works of three of her students, Jillian, an 11-year-old-girl, Luisa Maria, a 9-year-old girl, and Jaylen, an 8-year-old boy. The last names of the children are omitted for privacy purposes.

The “Taking Shelter” exhibit is open to the public and is on the second floor of the Amazing Things Art Center.

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Information from: MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.), http://www.metrowestdailynews.com

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