Brynn Unger’s “Full of Earth”
Upon meeting 20-year-old Brynn Unger, she doesn’t appear to be a world-weary traveler. At this moment she is a UW-Milwaukee college student and works at Anaba Tea Room in Shorewood. She is pretty, has a pleasant disposition and speaks sweetly in sentences peppered with American idioms such as “like” and “you know.” On the inside of her left wrist there is a tattoo that ornately reads Agape.
“In Greek, there’s four words for love,” Unger explains while tracing the letters with her right hand. “There is friendship love, romantic love, family love and then pure love — the way God loves people.”
The tattoo is a simple reminder to herself to love people no matter what. People can be mean to each other, sin, live in a different class system, but everyone deserves to be loved. This motif is directly reflected in Unger’s style of photography, within pictures she took while on faith- and service-based missions on three different continents.
The lower-level Anaba Tea Room, nestled below the Garden Room, is offering a showcase of these portraits and moments gathered over six years in an exhibit called “Full of Earth.” Unger says all proceeds will go to future trips with the Village of Hope organization and to buy video equipment for a planned documentary that her team would like to make in Uganda.
The selected works are intimate in nature, rarely revealing a full landscape or establishing scene, instead favoring portraits, stills and ordinary moments framed in a particular way. Unger points out that most of her subjects were people that she got to know first — something not necessarily familiar to photojournalists trying to capture a scene or typical citizen of the country they’re documenting.
Unger says, “When we stayed in a hostel in Gulu, it was right in this neighborhood. Some of these shots were right in that area. Every morning before breakfast, we’d go on a walk. I didn’t want to freak anyone out and just start taking pictures. For all these pictures, I can say that I talked to the person and got to know them a little. I can’t say I remember all their names, like this kid who couldn’t talk, but I saw him every day for those two weeks.”
She got her start down the path of helping out in foreign countries at the age of 14. Growing up in Minneapolis, one of her classmate’s father came in to her Christian middle school and proposed a trip to Costa Rica with Global Expeditions. Unger immediately fell in love with the people she met. The next summer, she signed on for a trip to Peru. Because it wasn’t the same team, the experience wasn’t the same and she desired more than to just put on plays and do missionary work. She wanted to help.
After trips to South Africa and India during high school, Unger learned about a small start-up group called Village of Hope. Upon wrangling an e-mail address for the founder, she pleaded her case to go along on a trip to Uganda.
“I had always wanted to go to Uganda. Always,” she states. “I learned about the [civil] war there, and I needed to go there. But I didn’t know how, and I didn’t want to go with an organization that was just a bunch of Americans.”
Unger was instructed to find a plane ticket to the war-torn Gulu area, to not travel alone, and that there would be plenty to do. It was now more than just travel — it was a passion, she says.
The warring rebel army has holed up in a region of the Congo, far enough away from the ravaged refugee camp where Village of Hope would be. Aid workers were initially pointed to some 400 orphans of the war.
Most of her five weeks there was spent helping to lay the foundations (literally) for a new village just south of the Nile where rebels couldn’t cross. The missionaries assisted the orphans and refugees in planting pineapple trees, an expensive and profitable commodity in Uganda: pineapple trees start bearing salable fruit in a short time. Unger says they asked the villagers if it was okay to move them from their homeland to this new place, native homes being of immense importance in Uganda. The children, at least, were okay with it because they cared most about being safe.
Back in Shorewood, Brynn reflects on her artistic vision and how it shaped this latest collection of work.
“I like to evoke emotion,” Unger says of her photographs, “whether that be someone looking at that kid and smiling themselves … because yes, there is a lot of sadness there, but there is a lot of happiness too. The most joy I’ve ever seen is in these kids just dancing. They can still have joy in the midst of a war.”
Within the artistic look of these photographs and the stark richness of faces, this is evident. Beyond art and emotion, Brynn has an underlying message.
“I don’t want to show just the sadness of a war. Yes, I want to tell people about it and see it … people have seen that. You’ve seen that. You can describe that. What if people can also see that these Ugandans are just normal people as well? What emotions would that evoke, and would that make others want to help? It’s easy to just send money, but then you keep seeing these images of poor kids with flies and tattered clothes and think ‘Okay, well, I sent money last year, it’s just never going to end.’ But there is change happening, there is.”
Unger’s next desired mission with Village of Hope is more dangerous — into the Congo itself. She describes an area the size of Connecticut that has been destroyed by the war, and people that need help even more desperately. She’ll bring her camera again, and bring back another book of images, memories and faces she learned by heart.
Brynn Unger: Full of Earth, is on display at Anaba Tea Room, 2107 E. Capitol Dr., in Shorewood. Tue. through Fri. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. and weekends 11 a.m.-3 p.m. until Feb. 28. She also has a website to see more images and a self-published photo book available to purchase at the gallery display or online.