Irwing Bernel was 13 when he and Barbara Beirne of Morristown walked the Wyoming landscape, she with her camera in hand. The Mexican teenager told her the first thing he learned to say in English: "Will you be my friend?" Bernel was eager to be understood, much like the other 58 teenagers Beirne photographed for her exhibit "Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration." The black-and-white exhibit, part of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), is making its first stop at Ellis Island Immigration Museum now through June 3. From there, it continues to Chicago, and then onward on a four-year journey across the country. (To see more of the photos, visit www.barbarabeirne.com.)
With the photograph of each teenager — some from Morris County — is a short essay or poem written by the teen about his or her experience. Bernel's last line stayed with Beirne: "Communities could try to share traditions, culture and life with us." "What a mature thing for a 13-year-old boy to say," said the documentary photographer, who traveled to city and countryside in 11 states from New Jersey to California. The immigrants of yesteryear tended toward cities, she said, but today that is not necessarily true. Bernel, for instance, lives in the wide-open West. As she did with all her subjects, Beirne asked him what backdrop best suited him for an environmental portrait. He chose the Tetons.
"They are all teenagers searching for their identity as Americans," Beirne said, "but with the added dimension of learning the language and struggling with trying to belong." The desire to be understood is what inspired most to participate, according to Beirne. She was after chronicling the modern immigration experience. "This is about putting faces on immigration," she said. "We talk about immigration policy but not enough about immigrants." In a fast-moving world, still photography allows people the luxury of long looks and the opportunity to ponder what they see, according to Beirne.
Photographing in black and white is one of her hallmarks. She likes echoing the work of the social photographers of the earlier 20th century. Dorothea Lange. Lewis Hine. Walker Evans, who worked with writer James Agee on the classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," about conditions among white sharecropper families in the U.S. South. Theirs were photographs that raised consciousness and influenced lawmakers and attitudes. As student and teacher, Beirne works with and among big names in her field. She holds a master's degree in fine arts with an emphasis in photography from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. She studied with Robert Mapplethorpe and Lisette Model and, in the early 1990s, taught photography at County College of Morris, a program she praises. Only "Belfast," her Ireland project, was photographed in color. She could not resist. "Oh, the colors in Ireland," said Beirne, whose ancestry is Irish.
While developing the project she thought of the prejudices the Irish faced when they came to the United States. "We need to ask ourselves now, Are we more welcoming to immigrants than we have been before? Do we have an appreciation of what they go through?" The questions first occurred to her in 1999 while on assignment at Fort Dix for a New Jersey magazine. There she photographed Kosovar Albanian refugees who had been living in a camp in Macedonia as they arrived by airlift. They stayed at Fort Dix until resettlement agencies found proper places for them. Because the children often spoke some English, Beirne found herself connecting to them. As she watched each leave, she pondered how they would adapt to life in this country. So "Becoming American" was born.
Her hope is it will encourage Americans to ponder the same questions. Participating in the project helped some teenagers process their own lives. Johnnie Sciortino of Morris Plains, whose Argentinian parents own the Swiss Chalet Bakery in Morristown, was photographed for "Becoming American." "She took a picture of me working in the decorators' department," said Sciortino, now a 21-year-old business student at County College of Morris. He is second- generation American, as are some of the other 59 subjects. though most are first generation. Sciortino said life is different for him at 21 than it was for his father, Angelo, at the same age. "My father came here at 18, not speaking English," Sciortino said. "He did not have much money. He was single, worked three jobs, lived in an apartment, sent money back home." During a short visit to Argentina, Angelo Sciortino met his wife, Antonia, and returned to the United States to work and save enough to have her join him. "If he didn't do what he did, I wouldn't have the opportunities I have at this moment -- going to college, being educated, being a U.S. citizen," Sciortino said. "I learned determination from my father and courage from my mother. If my parents could do what they did, I know I can do anything if I put my mind to it."
Other Morris teens photographed for the exhibit include Eileen Glaraga from the Philippines and formerly of Dover, as well as Omar Garcia from Colombia, formerly of Morristown. There are others from elsewhere in New Jersey:
- "It has been a challenge to balance and assimilate into my American culture while maintaining my Indian roots and challenges." —Nidhi V. Pamidimukkala, Somerset County
- "After the revolution, my parents left Iran because they could not practice their Bahá'í faith. I'm 16 years old and my parents are still really protective, because they live in a country that is strange to them." —Sohale Mehrmanesh, Essex County
All their stories are what the Smithsonian is about. "The Smithsonian is America's museum," said Lawrence Hyman, project director for SITES, which has 50 exhibits traveling the country at any given time. They are for Americans who cannot get to the museums in Washington, D.C. "Becoming American" is not Beirne's first exhibit for the Smithsonian. "Serving Home and Community: Women of Southern Appalachia" appeared in the National Museum of American History and also traveled with SITES. "Barbara has a wonderful eye," Hyman said, "and with her camera she tells the kind of American stories the Smithsonian collects and interprets." The story of immigration certainly is a large part of the American experience, he said. An experience key to the ever-changing fabric of the United States.
"Becoming American: Teenagers And Immigration" Photographs by Barbara Beirne Presented by Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service Ellis Island Immigration Museum Now through June 3 Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days
More information at https://www.sites.si.edu/s/archived-exhibit?topicId=0TO36000000TzFRGA0
To see more photos, or for more information on Barbara Beirne, visit www.barbarabeirne.com