Still Waiting

Sonia Handelman Meyer
Sonia Handelman Meyer – Waiting

She called her photograph “Waiting.”

A man in a fine hat and light suit sits in elegant pose, one leg folded across the other, his jacket resting on his shoulders. His eyes are difficult to read. He is waiting.

The man next to him is bent over, his head resting in his palm. Despair? Exhaustion? We can only guess. He, too, waits.

An elderly woman, her head bandaged, looks over her glasses. Her newspaper rests over her legs, the Hebrew letters running across the page in successively smaller rows.

They are all immigrants. They are all waiting for their interviews at the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society.

The picture dates back to the years just after World War II. It was taken by Sonia Handelman Meyer, then a young woman in her twenties.

Sonia was a member of the New York Photo League, founded in 1936. Its members documented conditions among migrant workers, homeless persons, and the unemployed. Their pictures exposed racism, poverty, and the use of child labor.

I met and interviewed Sonia, now 95, for a story I was writing for The Charlotte Observer. Her work will be going on exhibition in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, this August.

It is now many weeks after I met Sonia. But I keep looking at her pictures.

I look at the little girl on the stoop in Spanish Harlem, her face smudged. Her eyes are hard to read.

Meyer_Children in Vacant Lot, Harlem
Sonia Handelman Meyer – Children in Vacant Lot, Harlem

I look at the five African American children playing in the rubble. There is nothing green or natural to break up the gray and desolate landscape.

Sonia would walk through poorer parts of New York, she told me, snapping one or two pictures at a time.

The results were – are – incredible.

“Love” is a photograph of a young African American couple standing on a stoop. He is casual, debonair. His whole body leans toward the young woman, whose small smile glows.

“Beautiful Boy” is a picture Sonia took while documenting conditions at Sydanham Hospital, the first interracial hospital in New York. The child looks up from his hospital bed, his hair tousled. Beautiful. And waiting.

Sonia Handelman Meyer - Beautiful Boy
Sonia Handelman Meyer – Beautiful Boy

Sonia took pictures at an anti-lynching rally in 1946 after four African American sharecroppers – one seven months pregnant – had been lynched in Georgia.

She took pictures of poor teenage boys.

She took pictures of conditions that seem familiar to us because we are still permitting the same inequalities, the same poverty, and the same injustice. Her pictures are ours.

“I was a radical in the forties,” Sonia told me – and, she added firmly, “not only in the forties.”

Then and now, people were not willing to see the injustice that surrounded them.

“We were living in a city, in a country,” she remembers, “that had come through a terrible depression and a horrible war: Supposedly we had won. But people were still hungry, looking for work, still unhoused.”

The League lasted until it was shut down by the government in 1951, labeled a “subversive organization.”

Sonia married, had children, and put her pictures in shoe boxes. Her work might have been lost to us. Her son, Joe Meyer, insisted on giving them back to the world. They have been part of a major exhibition on the New York League at the Mint Museum of Charlotte, and now, her pictures are coming to Cabarrus County. They will take up every last room in the Old Courthouse in Concord between August 17 and October 10.

Sonia especially loved to take pictures of children. They were, she says, “most vulnerable. Most beautiful.”

We live in a world in which children have yet to be granted the right to live safe and healthy lives.

We are all still waiting.

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