With little more than a secondhand camera she bought 20 years ago, Barbara Beirne, a lifelong resident of New Jersey, has hiked through remote regions of the Appalachian Mountains and flown as far as Northern Ireland in search of compelling subjects for her photographs.
The images Ms. Beirne has captured, from rugged faces of Appalachian women near their homes to chilling scenes of children standing next to soldiers' rifles on Belfast streets, portray the stories of the people she has encountered and the communities that shaped them.
Her most recent project, “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration,” depicts the diversity of backgrounds and desires of adolescent newcomers and first-generation teenagers in the United States, as well as the challenges they faced coming of age here. The exhibition, sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, began a nationwide tour on March 10 at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum; it runs through June 3.
Ms. Beirne, of Morristown, began to explore photography in the mid-1980s after raising four children with her husband, John. During trips to Northern Ireland from 1987 to 1994, she saw the violence young people routinely encountered in Belfast. In one close-up shot, a boy playing a drum looks up at a soldier who is pointing a rifle at him.
“I was just anxious to show what the children's life was like: guns on the street and guns pointed at them,” Ms. Beirne said. “You can't do that unless you're in close.”
David E. Haberstich, a Smithsonian Institution archivist who has followed Ms. Beirne's work for 15 years, said he was impressed by how close she got.
In 1997, just before Ms. Beirne's exhibition on southern Appalachian women was to open in Washington, one subject decided she did not want her photograph to appear. While Mr. Haberstich, the exhibit's curator, argued that it should be kept, Ms. Beirne said she wanted to remove it out of respect for the woman's right to change her mind.
“Her caring about the person trumped her artistic concerns,” Mr. Haberstich said. “There are many artists who would have been totally uncompromising about something like that. But that's not Barbara.”
“Becoming American,” which took six years to complete, features portraits of more than 50 teenagers who had moved to different regions of the country. It stemmed in part from a 1999 magazine assignment to photograph Kosovar Albanian refugees at Fort Dix.
Ms. Beirne tried unsuccessfully to keep track of camp residents as they settled throughout the United States. She often found herself wondering how they would adapt to a new country, she said.
During the project, Ms. Beirne met Arsim Mustafa, a middle school student who had passed through Fort Dix and was living in El Cajon, Calif., a small city outside San Diego. Arsim, photographed on a paint-splattered handball court, sports high-top basketball sneakers and looks steadily at the lens. Accompanying text reads: “In my country, it was always war. I saw people dying.”
It concludes, “We finally got away, but I was upset.”
Ms. Beirne, a descendant of immigrants who fled the potato famine in Ireland, said the encounter with Arsim “was like coming full circle.” Growing up in Bloomfield, she saw a 1955 Life magazine series of photographs by Dorothea Lange on Irish country people — children, fiddlers and farmers on their land.
“We knew little about our heritage, since my ancestors didn't want to talk about their experiences,” Ms. Beirne said. “To see these pictures, you really got a feeling for the village and the time.”
Now, her portrait of Kelechi Ibeh, who played football at Bloomfield High School and is the son of Nigerian immigrants, hangs in the same museum as portraits by Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, pioneers in documentary photography.
“What I hope to show is that immigrants are all over the United States now,” Ms. Beirne said, adding that she wanted her 10 grandchildren to learn about their new compatriots. “I thought it was important for them to realize the sacrifices people go through in life.”