By Joshua A. Hughes
A group of Southside teenagers exhibited a dozen of their photographs at the Mission Branch Library on Tuesday to show what teen pregnancy means to them at an event organized by UT Teen Health, a program of UT Health Science Center’s ob-gyn department. The photographers said that their works focused not only on educating teenagers on how to avoid unplanned pregnancies, but also on the reality of being a young person raising a child.
“It’s hard being a teen mom or a teen dad supporting a child without a steady job or without a job, so you really have to depend on somebody,” Robert Rodriguez, age 16, said. His photo — taken at his cousin's baby shower — shows a mound of diapers shaped into the form of a cake.
Many of the teens said they had personal experience with close friends or family members who were teenage parents. Rodriguez said that he has two brothers who both were fathers in their teens.
Christopher McLennan, 15, said that watching many of his friends become pregnant inspired him to join UT Teen Health’s efforts. He had two photos on display that he said expressed how serious teen pregnancy is. “In these pictures, I’m trying to say that if you’re gonna have a baby, you better be prepared. Because they are a lot of responsibility. They’re gonna need nurturing,” McLennan said. “It’s a lot of responsibility just to have one baby.”
McLennan quoted prices on buying diapers in bulk to show how overwhelming even small things can be for teens raising children.
Each photographer discussed their own concerns about teen pregnancy, concerns that ranged from before a child is even in the picture all the way to what teenage parents’ futures can look like.
“Teens have used babies as a sort of escape route for unhealthy relationships. They think, ‘If I have sex with my partner, then he’ll stay or she’ll stay. And if I have a baby with the partner, there’s no way they can leave. They owe me that to take care of this baby.’ And in reality, as much as they do owe you, they don’t have to pay their dues,” said Laura Marie Ruggiero, age 16. “If they want to be the irresponsible partner, they can be the irresponsible partner.”
Bianca Rosales, age 17, displayed a picture of a teenager wearing a backpack and holding a baby’s car seat. “This represents the girl we see all too often in our school,” said said.
Rosales, who plans to attend UT-Austin in the fall and hopes to go to law school following her graduation there, said that she was concerned with teenage parents giving up on their educations and futures once they have children. She wanted to encourage teen parents, not scorn them. “We have to bring in that good peer pressure,” she said.
The project came about from a grant directed at teen pregnancy prevention from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Kristin Plastino, the project director for the grant. “One of the parts of that is to make sure we engage our youth in teen pregnancy, so it’s not a bunch of adults telling youth what to do, but actually having the youth come up with a solution.
“We asked the teens to take the pictures, and then we came together as a group, just the teens, and we processed them, and we went through a very specific process of ‘What do you see literally in the picture?’ and then actually, ‘What’s underneath that picture and why does this exist and what can we do about it?’” Bonnie Scott, the health educator at UT Teen Health, said. “That was the process with the teens, and then we brought it here to the community so that they could start thinking about those questions.”
Notably, the project took nine months to complete, and was the first photography work that many of the teenagers had done.
“Most of the pictures were taken with cell phones,” Scott said. “None of our teens had professional photography experience or anything, they just went out and did point and shoot.”
Thanks to a strong turnout and positive reception, however, the group is going to try to tour the photographs around San Antonio schools and libraries.
Interaction between the organizing adults and visitors was at a minimum, a very purposeful dynamic according to Plastino. “Our goal was to allow our youth to shine to let them speak about what they is important about teen pregnancy prevention,” Plastino said. “Not a bunch of adults talking about it, but more having to come from the youth, the ones that are affected the most.”