The first things you notice about the young faces powering the “Becoming American” photos are the eyes.
They reflect hope, determination and, at times, apprehension. They could be the eyes of any American teen, really, but there is an undeniable intensity in their black and white portraits, now on display at the Webber Gallery.
The second thing you notice is what sets them apart from many American teens and targets the heart of the art: diversity and the mesh of cultures. Barbara Beirne's photographs, “Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration,” depict first-generation immigrants and the children of immigrants fresh into their American journey.
A Smithsonian Institute touring exhibit that also marks the Webber's 15th anniversary, “Becoming American” is a collection of 59 black-and-white prints that chronicle the immigration into America through the eyes and words of teenagers. Each photo is accompanied by a text panel quoting the teen in the photo.
“It has been a challenge to balance and assimilate into my American culture while maintaining my Indian roots and background. I'm a typical teenage girl who loves to go to the mall with friends; however, I have the remarkable opportunity to be involved in a traditional Indian lifestyle,” noted 16-year-old Nidhi V. Pamidimikkala, who is wearing detailed, traditional Indian clothes and jewelry in her photo.
She is photographed in front of the Hindu temple she attends.
The portrait is striking in its expressive beauty, contrast and composition. The work, like others in the exhibit, has a classic, painterly feel to it. Some of the works in “Becoming American” feel more urban. All are environmental portraits with the subjects offering input on location and dress.
“They were very definite,” Beirne said from her home in New Jersey last week. “One girl was really proud of her bedroom. She was sure that's where she wanted to be photographed. They all had a place where they were comfortable.”
That's what stood out to Michele Faulconer, the Webber's gallery coordinator and an instructor at the College of Central Florida. “The fact that they are photographed in their own environment helps to capture who they are,” Faulconer said Friday as she hung the prints.
The photographs were shot with a medium-format film camera, and much of the process involved working with agencies and schools to find the teens, and then get permission to photograph them and get their stories.
“I know the teens are sensitive years, and teenagers don't like to talk to strangers and tell them their experiences. But what surprised me about this is how willing these teenagers were to talk about their experiences. And they really wanted Americans to understand them better.” Beirne said.
She traveled to 12 states and photographed teens representing more than 50 countries.
“What has particularly pleased me about the exhibition is that viewers go away with a better understanding of why people leave their homeland and all that is familiar to them,” the photographer noted. “It is my hope that the exhibition puts a face on immigration and makes us aware that each immigrant has a unique story behind their decision to take this enormous journey.”
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