For Matti Kniva Spencer, it all started with a Kodak Brownie camera. As a way of calming him down, Kniva Spencer’s mother got him the camera when he was 10 years old and sent him out to take photos. He learned that he really enjoyed photography, and moved on from his little Brownie to a Polaroid and then to a digital camera. But in this day and age where technology is in everyone’s pockets, Kniva Spencer, a writer, photographer, and humanitarian, now mainly relies on his cell phone for photos.
Fifteen years ago, Kniva Spencer’s first photography show was on display at the Peterborough Senior Center and profiled the lives of seniors. “As much as I love seniors, I wanted to include different ages,” he said. “The reason I continued is because each show got more and more successful.”
Kniva Spencer’s latest show, “Faces in Massachusetts,” is now on display at the Fenway Community Center (FCC). All of his shows have been shot in black and white as an homage to his first camera. This latest show was shot completely on his Android cell phone. It is also his sixth show, and it focuses on 25 people ranging in age from 15 to 90. “I like to include very diverse people [in my shows],” Kniva Spencer said. “When people come, they can see themselves. Each show is like a rainbow.” The show features photos of the 25 people, with bios underneath them written by Kniva Spencer, but they are from the first-person perspective as if the person had written their own story.
“Behind every face is a story,” Kniva Spencer said of his reason for doing the shows. “We don’t get to know our neighbors,” he said, but once that initial contact is made, you can find out so much about a person. “We live in a fast world; people don’t have time to get to know each other,” he said. There is “less talk that goes on, and communication is so important,” he said.
Kniva Spencer talked about a woman in the show who uses a wheelchair and does not have use of her arms or legs. She spoke about the fact that people should not be afraid to come up to her and talk to her. He has also featured transgender people, little people, and immigrants in his shows. He said the subjects could be anyone from a woman who works in a laundromat who no one really knows to a city councilor to a homeless person. “It opens up a discussion about who we are,” he said. “We may look different, but we feel the same way other people do. It’s about acceptance.”
Kniva Spencer’s subjects are people he meets and people he reads about in the newspaper, but a lot of them are people he’s known, he said.
An opening reception for “Faces in Massachusetts” was held at the FCC on March 9—Kniva Spencer said “the place was smoking.” More than half of the 25 participants came and shared their story, including a 90-year-old woman who walks with two canes. She told her story about how she was an alcoholic, became sober, and is now a deacon at a church.
“It was very touching, very moving,” Kniva Spencer said. “I cried, some of us cried.” He said that there were a lot of faces from former shows in the audience who came to show their support for the latest show.
Kniva Spencer said he spent six months interviewing these 25 people, and “just to see the camaraderie and the love in this room was worth everything to me,” he said. “That’s my life as a photographer and a writer.” He said it’s “too late at a wake or a funeral” to honor someone’s story, so his shows are about giving people credit while they’re still alive.
His father is part of the Iroquois tribe, and he fondly remembers sitting in the circle as a child with members of his father’s family for hours as they told stories and smoked a pipe. He said this is a large part of why he believes so strongly in telling people’s stories. “I feel like I become closer to each person after I interview them,” he said.
Kniva Spencer grew up in Maine, and became a preschool teacher and then did human service work. Photography has always just been a hobby for him, but he has developed a real interest in it and has even lead sessions to help people learn about photography. He lived in the Fenway for 35 years, but now resides in the South End.
“We need more shows like this. We need to bring people together,” Kniva Spencer said. “We’ve come a long way since that little Brownie.”
Faces in Massachusetts is on display at the Fenway Community Center until April 26.