What's it like working a low-income job, or multiple jobs in Missoula, and just barely getting by, or not at all?

For Geri Stiffarm, it means a day job with a nonprofit supplemented by cashier shifts at a grocery store, usually working a minimum of six days a week.

It means sharing a car with her wife, who is disabled, and shuttling around her 16-year-old daughter.

It means not spending much time with her family.

It means walking up 63 stairs every morning to get to an office.

Stiffarm, who loves her jobs, works them so her family can live in a nice place and she can support her child's interests.

"You gotta do what you gotta do," she said. "I do it so I can support the extra things that my daughter wants to do."

Stiffarm is one of 10 low-income Missoula residents who shot photographs of their day-to-day lives for "Work Through My Lens: Photos and Stories, Voices from the Poverty Line."

They'll share their stories, and photos, on Wednesday at the Missoula Food Bank, 219 S. Third St. W., then in April at Butterfly Herbs. (See box.)

The project was spearheaded by Debby Florence of Good Jobs Missoula, a burgeoning group whose mission is to "provide kitchen-service-retail workers a way to voice their concerns and demands, and to organize to ensure these demands are met."

An IndieGoGo campaign paid for the cameras and printing, and a Humanities Montana grant covered costs of assembling the project.

Photographers Jonathan Qualben and Michael Gallacher gave the group advice and technical tips, and they spent about eight weeks using small digital 20-megapixel point-and-shoot cameras.

Each photo will be accompanied by a written statement from the photographer, all of whom were recruited at the Missoula Food Bank.

One photograph, of a scavenged, mostly empty refrigerator, has a few paragraphs to explain it:

"This is the way my refrigerator looks. Having six people in my home, after paying for rent and utilities, I can't have my ends meet. I have two teens and an 11-year-old who are always eating and looking for more. That's why we need to go to food bank. I go not because I want, but because I have to."

Another, of an empty, street-lit bridge in the pre-dawn darkness, says:

"This is my street at 4 in the morning, on my way home from work. I work two jobs and sometimes I have to be at my next job at 9 a.m."

A photograph of a lunch box explains why the photographer eats so little:

"There's been more than one night though where I have gone without dinner so that my kids have something to eat."


People aren't making it and are slipping through the cracks, Florence said.

"This can't be romanticized in any way whatsoever. These people are really struggling," Florence said.

Some the statistics she provides bears that out:

  • 21 percent of all jobs in Missoula are in the food service industry.
  • 50 percent of all jobs in Montana pay below the living wage.

Florence, who's studying for her master's degree in social work at the University of Montana, is the mother of a teenager who's worked in those food and service industries and identifies herself as poor.

She hopes the photography show spurs discussion about what it's like to make hard decisions, ones she faced herself.

One participant spent a whole paycheck so her child could participate in the robotics club at their high school. Another spent hard-earned money on a cheerleader's uniform.

They're difficult decisions, said Florence, that people make in order to meet a child's needs beyond food and shelter.

Discussion is a part of the PhotoVoice model, driven by a specific group's input.

"You're not just doing an art project, you're giving people, usually in a marginalized group, a voice to talk about their lived experience," she said.

It's used primarily for low-income groups, children, or neighborhood improvement projects, she said.

The participants themselves will share their stories on Wednesday.

"They really felt that this would be a contribution to change in some way ... even though we don't know what that might be," she said.

Stiffarm enjoyed the project, and took some 70 photographs.

The hardest part, she said, was finding time to stop and take a picture.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment Editor for The Missoulian.