Someone You Should Know: Arleen Thaler

Arleen Thaler (Photo: Paul Giovine/WHAM)

Photographer Arleen Thaler uses the power of pictures to take us to places that are not far from where we live, yet most of us never visit.

Her photos take us to the neighborhood around Rochester’s Jones Park, near Lyell and Saratoga Avenues. Thaler, with her Fuji X-100s digital camera, introduces us to the sex workers, many of them drug addicted, who roam those streets, and huddle against the cold in abandoned homes. Many of the yards and alleys are strewn with garbage, including the needles that are telltale signs of the drug use that is so common in that part of the city.

“I met a really amazing worker sex worker out here,” Thaler says. “Evie allowed me to come into her home. And I took a photograph of her daughter. They were living in poverty. Community members, within a day, they brought in food and clothes.”

Thaler’s work, featured in the local magazine, “Post,” and posted on social media, has inspired others to take action. Among them, Open Door Mission Executive Director Anna Valeria-Iseman.

“I saw a picture that she had posted on Facebook of what appeared to be some kind of abandoned building where, clearly, some women were staying, and she told the story of what was going on there,” said Valeria-Iseman. She says she immediately contacted Thaler and asked how the mission could get involved.

On the day we met Thaler, Valeria-Iseman walked with us. Open Door Mission is now working to track prostitutes and addicts on the streets. Knowing who they are, and where they are, is a key to serving them better.

Thaler is also working with Melanie Blow of the Stop Abuse Campaign, which focuses on the long-term impact of childhood traumas. Thaler says many of the women in her photographs were victims long before they found themselves on the streets.

One explanation for the power of Thaler’s photographs is the relationship she fosters with the subjects. While she doesn’t show faces, she does get to know them. Thaler often crawls through open windows of abandoned homes to meet the women taking shelter there. Occasionally, she spends the night.

“You don't know what you don't know,” Thaler says. “I can stand here on the outside and I can photograph this whole scene for you with a few captions. But once I break into that window and get in and meet these people and start assessing their needs, then I know and now the photos I take represent the truth of the story.”

Not everyone has the time, the passion, or the courage to step into this world in the way that Arleen Thaler has. But she hopes her photos will continue to make people aware, and help them to care.

“We have the power to create the most amazing things in this world,” says Thaler. “And there are women shooting up, being beaten by men and used sexually for five dollars, all day, every day, homeless. How can we not fix that?”

For more information on Arleen's work, click here.

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