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As Human - Unique and Different - as Anyone


Duke Health News 919-660-1306

It wasn't enough to be a doctor, even one involved with
taking care of disadvantaged adolescents. John Moses felt he
didn't really know his patients, and that until he could relate
to them, he might make judgments that were unfair. To him,
medicine was more than just treating the physical. It meant
offering a human touch, the ability to understand and

So, Moses used a camera, his tool for observing what was
around him. A devotee of documentary photography, Moses had
honed his eye to see what many people did not. Before starting
medical school, he spent months photographing migrant farm
workers from Florida to North Carolina. And after working as a
pediatrician for awhile, he turned to his lens to gain insight
into young families.

Moses wanted to understand how it was that his own patients
were, in effect, producing new patients – children having
children. He wanted to comprehend what teenage pregnancy meant
and how it changed his patients' lives. His mission took him
several years, culminating in photographic contributions to the
book, "The Youngest Parents," published by the Center for
Documentary Studies at Duke in association with W.W. Norton and

In some cases, Moses visited the homes of young families
dozens of times. That Moses came to where they lived with a
mixture of "curiosity, hesitation, confusion" worked to his
advantage: "No longer the all-confident, all-knowing doctor, I
became unwittingly open to new possibilities, new ways of
looking at and thinking about the issue of adolescent
pregnancy." He visited 15 year-old twin sisters, each of whom
had a baby. He got to know the teenage mother of triplets. He
documented the life of an abused teenager who had a child in
order to carve out her own life, to get away from her
irresponsible parents. In many cases, pregnancies in these
teenagers were planned. Often the young parents made a home,
struggling, but surviving.

"On the one hand I found what I thought I was looking for:
poor, relatively 'uneducated,' unrestrained, undisciplined,
'sexually active' 'children having children.' The tragedy, the
social dysfunction of it all, was there before me to record for
others to see," he wrote in a forward to his photographs.

"On the other hand, I found the views and notions I brought
along on my visits were often confounded, challenged, even
derailed by what I saw and heard and felt," Moses said. "I
observed some teenage parents to be more capable and devoted to
their children than I had anticipated. I found myself wondering
if in some situations the birth of a child was not a kind of
stabilizing influence on a family, a kind of adaptive response
to a life otherwise chaotic or destructive or worse."

For some of the adolescents who were undereducated and
poorly prepared for the job market, having a child was not a
limitation, Moses said. "In fact, for some teenagers, it was a
kind of important accomplishment in the context of a life that
may not include a lot of other tangible accomplishments," he
said. "We shouldn't rush to judgment by using the noose of the
label "teenage parent," but allow them to be as human, unique
and different as anyone."

While Moses is not a proponent of teenage pregnancy, in
large part because American society does not support these
children morally or economically, he said that his time with
the parents made him question his own choices in life, which
have not yet included marriage or children. "Why was I, a
'secure,' 'responsible,' adult 'professional' rather wary of
parenthood? More than once, I felt I was being visited upon by
those whose lives I sought to enter into and record."

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