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RI exec assists Ken Burns on Dust Bowl film

Associated Press Modified: November 17, 2012 at 11:16 am •  Published: November 17, 2012

"He signed me up and said: You help pull the photographs for that special," Pontarelli recalled. "I jumped at the opportunity."

As an unpaid research associate for the film, Pontarelli spent weeks cataloging all the Dust Bowl images available, then made four trips to Washington to sift through some 1,200 to 1,500 pictures. The first time he went back, he found the filing cabinets just as they were all those years ago. He knew just where to go, and in some cases what images he was looking for.

The most famous one, "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange, shows the worried face of a 32-year-old mother of seven, in a lean-to tent in Nipomo, Calif., her children clinging to her. Lange said years later the mother had told her she had been living on frozen vegetables from the fields and birds killed by her children; she just sold the tires off her car to buy food.

While it was his love of photography that drew him to the collection, Pontarelli realized he found more to the work than that. Partway through production of the film, he started a master's program at Rhode Island College in social work, something he intends to pursue as a retirement career. He has spent time at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, studying audio documentary techniques, which he hopes to incorporate into his social work. He notes that social work and documentary-making are both about helping people understand "their own narratives."

While Pontarelli hasn't touched his camera in years — all the pictures he takes now are with his smartphone — what he learned from the Dust Bowl images stayed with him.

"You look at each one, you can't help but stare into the faces of these people," he said.