Thursday, September 27, 2007
The story of immigration in America is a long, complex, unwieldy tale that involves so many people that the story is often illustrated by images of “huddling masses.” It’s hard to feel a human connection to a mob, but it’s impossible to ignore the impact of an individual face.
Documentary photographer Barbara Beirne (pronounced “burn”) has captured the human face of immigration. Her latest collection of photographs, Becoming American: Teenagers & Immigration, are evocative black and white portraits of immigrant teenagers, shot in the settings of their new lives in the US – a high school football field, a backyard, a cityscape. In all, there are 59 photos of teenaged immigrants representing 56 countries, accompanied by captions written by the subjects themselves.
“These teens are struggling with language, with customs, with teenage identity,” says Beirne, from her home in Morristown, New Jersey. “Sometimes their arrival isn’t welcome by their neighbors. But I haven’t approached this politically; I just wanted the viewer to understand.”
The traveling exhibit was organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), which takes works of art, science and history from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC, and tours them to cities across the country, within reach of more people. Beirne’s photo exhibit was launched from New York’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum earlier this year and is docking at the National Steinbeck Center for a 9-week run.
Beirne became interested in teen immigration issues during an assignment in 1999 to photograph Kosovar Albanian refugees fleeing from war. The refugees had flooded camps in Macedonia, so many were airlifted to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where Beirne encountered them. In the course of her assignment, she got to know, like and care for some of the young refugees. When they started moving out to different parts of the US, she became “overwhelmed with concern” and wondered how they would fare in their new home. She set off to find out.
She traveled to various states and contacted immigration services organizations, schools, churches and nonprofits to help her find immigrant teenagers who wanted to tell their story of adapting to their new home. Those who participated chose the location and their clothes for their photograph. “They are happy to be here,” says Beirne, “and really wanted to be part of this exhibit because they wanted people to know them.
“Some came for economic reasons, some for political and religious reasons. If their parents don’t speak English, they act as translators and have a great deal of responsibility. They’re thrilled to be able to go to school, and very optimistic about their future.”
Beirne’s camera captures in the young faces curiosity, defiance and everything else that characterizes the teen years. The already turbulent time of emerging individuality is compounded for these young people by their “difference” in culture – and sometimes by very difficult experiences.
Three teen girls standing in front of high school lockers paint a grim picture of their lives in Cambodia. Their caption reads: “The government does not pay the people well. Also, the justice system is not working. People rob each other and there are many kidnappings. We came here to find a safe place.”
In her caption, Nidhi, a 16-year-old Indian girl, juxtaposes typical American teen interests like hanging out in the mall, with her love of Kichipudi, a classical Indian dance. Sohale, 16, of Iran, writes that his family fled their home country to escape persecution of their Baha’i faith, but now he worries about Arab persecution in the US.
Beirne relates a story of one girl from Bangladesh. “She thought no one worked in this country because everyone was so rich, and that there were actually streets of gold. She was shocked when she came here and found out how hard Americans work.”
A Ukrainian girl, wrapped in a black wool coat and scarf, gazes past the camera with amused, penetrating eyes. In her caption she asks, “Is it true that you can’t pick apples from trees here?”
Beirne’s own grandparents immigrated to the US after the potato famine in Ireland. “I think the richness in culture, the diversity, is one of the strengths of our country. [The teen subjects] have a fresh perspective.”
Back in 1999, when Beirne waved goodbye to the young Kosavar Albanian refugees as they left Fort Dix to make new lives in this country, she was worried for their fate. Not anymore. “I feel reassured now to see how much help they receive,” she says. “In a very short time they are established and independent.”
She wants her photographs to contribute to their host cities by unifying those that live there. “I hope people will reach out to young immigrants in their neighborhood,” she says with an optimism that mirrors those of the teens she photographed.
BECOMING AMERICAN: TEENAGERS & IMMIGRATION opens with a reception Friday, 5:30-7:30pm, at the Steinbeck Center, 1 Main Street, Salinas. $5/general; free/members. 775-4721 or steinbeck.org.