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'In Their Faces'
Reveals Human Spirit Through Film

By Carla Garnett

On the Front Page...
If accuracy alone could tell the whole story, then this article could be summed up pretty simply: A long, winding road led Frank Lucas from dreams of a career in film and television to his current post as a psychologist in NIMH's Laboratory of Clinical Science. But then, a reader would miss a lot of the flavor, and certainly all the color, of a tale told best with pictures, specifically those found in Lucas's debut photo exhibit, which is on display now through Oct. 28 in the Clinical Center Orem Gallery.

A Picture's Worth...

The faces hit you first. Faces of children. Five photos stand out right away, each with its own spotlight along one Bldg. 10 wall. "Forest Harvest," for instance, shows a grinning youngster, about 12 years old or so, enveloped by a leafy field. Loose-fitting red knit cap cocked over both ears, one long green vine gripped in chapped, work-roughened dark brown hands, the kid -- probably a boy -- looks back over his shoulder. He seems to preen slightly for the camera. You can nearly read his thoughts: For this instant, I'm the show -- and that alone is worth the biggest, toothiest smile.

One of Lucas's personal favorites, "Forest Harvest," finds a child's smile amid an adult's labors.

"I have to be in their faces," explains Lucas. "I have a rapport with each of them. I have to. They are definitely aware that I'm taking their pictures. I don't use long lenses to steal an image. I'm very close when I take these portraits. What you realize is that a lot of people never feel special. Making their pictures made them feel special. I hope you can see that in the pictures."

Looking back, Lucas says he's always sought ways to make folks feel special in his work. Ironically, his search led him back to his beginnings. In fact, he could have ended up on the other side of the camera himself, if he'd stayed on his first course.

Born and reared in Clifton, N.J., Lucas hails from a family rooted in the film and television industry. He began studying in the theater arts briefly, before he decided in the early 1980's to attend university in Italy for language and culture. While there, he encountered numerous African students whose vivid descriptions of their homeland stirred his interest and drew him towards the Dark Continent.

Dabbling in Art, Life

In 1984, following a fruitless search in the harsh terrain of the Middle East for an old friend, who later was found to have been killed in the war in Lebanon, Lucas finally gave in to the pull of Africa and settled down to life as a watercolor artist in the Seychelle Islands of the Indian Ocean, just north of Madagascar. He met with limited success.

"The first country I visited was Turkey," he says, recalling how his travels began. "I didn't even carry a camera with me on that journey, but the images of the land and the people stayed with me. The colors of the people were so arresting."

It was later, during several week-long trips to Nairobi -- short breaks from his island life -- that he finally began to nurture his passion for photography seriously.

"I found out I was a lousy painter," Lucas admits, smiling at the memory. "But as I look at these photos, I can see now how closely they resemble my paintings. The paintings were figurative portraits, as well, but the images and colors are so much more beautiful than I could paint them." As a protégé of anthropologist Donna Klump, he recorded the life of the urban poor in a Mathare Valley, Nairobi, shantytown through a series of vividly colored photographic portraits. He would spend the next decade or so as a freelance photojournalist based in Kenya, supplying images to the World Health Organization, the British Broadcasting Co. and National Geographic Television.

Human Studies Continue

In addition to requiring travel to such exotic locales as Haiti and Prague, Czechoslovakia, his career often linked him with medical corps and health organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the Helen Keller Organization and Save the Children Federation, Inc., which along with CC's Patient Emergency Fund, will receive the proceeds from his photo show. By chance, the 17-piece exhibit is being shown on three walls of the CC gallery nearest the hospital's admissions waiting area. Lucas says he couldn't have planned for a better audience for his debut.

"I hope the pictures can give people a sense of calm," he explains. "Here they are, contemplating very difficult situations, serious illnesses, in their lives or their family's. I hope they can see in the photos the lives of other people whose lives are very different and possibly even more difficult than their own. The men, women and children in these photos are among the most adaptive, most creative people I have ever met. I mean, they're undeniably poor and I'm not going to try and gloss over that, but the spirit of the people will have to come through. Maybe people can view these images and get a sense of peace. They may be able to take their minds off their own troubles for a while."

Lucas recalls that seeing women like the one shown in a photo he calls "Transcendence" helped him draw sharp contrasts between the average American life and those of the people in most developing countries. The Haitian woman is shown close-up in a head and shoulders shot, clad in cream-colored native garb and headwrap, carrying a large woven basket on her head. However, it's her expression, a combination of resignation, pain and -- unbelievably -- amusement, that names the photo.

"What women do in the developing world is a lesson," Lucas says. "They work tremendously hard, carrying heavy items most of the time. The physical burden alone must be incredible, not to mention the daily spiritual and psychological burdens of poverty and illness borne by people in developing nations. And they just bear it and keep moving forward. They don't even seem to think about the loads they're carrying. It's just the way it is for them. There's a sense of dignity and self-respect that I hope you can see in the photo."

Photographer and NIMH researcher Frank Lucas gives "Christophe" a final inspection before his debut in the Clinical Center Orem Gallery.

About 3 years ago, Lucas decided to continue his studies of the human psyche, this time in a lab setting. He went back to the university for formal training in psychology. Several months ago, he came to NIH as a research fellow in the lab of Dr. Dennis Murphy, whose group is investigating the gene that modulates anxiety and neuroticism. Lucas and his colleagues are mapping personality traits to genes. He says he does not yet miss the hard travels of his former career, yet he's already planning photo shoots in Harlem, Cuba and South America. Next spring, his photo portfolio will be on display in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

"I know a lot of people think the lab work I'm doing now is so far afield from photojournalism," he says of his research career, "but I think what I've been doing all along has been health-related. I've always been looking beyond the surface. These images make you think and ponder.

"I've never had a show before," he concludes. "I've been really shy about showing these photos this way. Friends and associates tried to convince me. I finally decided that these pictures need a wider audience, and that donating the profits to charity would be a way I could help. These people fostered my career and their pictures, their lives deserve to be shown."

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