Immigration has become a hot topic in the United States. Some feel that people standing on street corners or at railroad stations waiting for work have no right to be there and should all be shipped off to their native lands. Others feel that immigration has contributed to the greatness of our nation, and that our immigration policies are cruel and insensitive and need to be drastically revised.
Through her photographic lens, Morris Township photographer Barbara Beirne has recorded with sensitivity and insight the anguish and the hope of a group of first generation teenagers, those who have immigrated to this country or refugees who have been forced to leave their native land, in her exhibition "Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration." This traveling exhibition of 59 black and white photographs organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) is currently on view at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Ellis Island, New York through June 3 and is then expected to travel around the United States for four years.
Beirne, who specializes in documentary photography has succeeded in putting a human face on immigration, capturing the uncertainty and courage of these young teenagers faced with the challenges of adapting to a new world and culture. The project all started in 1999 when Beirne was on assignment for NJ Magazine to photograph and interview Albanian refugees from Kosovo, sent to Fort Dix, New Jersey before being relocated in the United States. "I became so interested in the young newcomers that I decided to pursue the subject of refugee and immigrant teenagers to explore the difficulties and triumphs they experienced while trying to adapt to this country," said Beirne in a recent interview.
Beirne contacted a friend at the Grand Street Settlement on the lower East side of New York City, a nonprofit organization that has provided services to immigrants since 1916, to get permission to start her project. "I met with potential subjects and together we discussed how to proceed with the project. The teenagers decided where they wanted to be photographed, what they would wear and what they wanted to write about themselves to accompany the photographs."
From these initial photographs Beirne extended her project, traveling to 11 different states between 2000 and 2006, to study immigrants and refugees in high schools, places of worship and refugee resettlement centers across the country. "In my travels and work I was very impressed with the agencies that help refugees assimilate, such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC). They do a wonderful job of guiding, comforting and advising these young people as they struggle to learn English and adapt to new customs."
In one photograph, strikingly beautiful Nidhi V. Pamidimukkala, age 16 at the time she was photographed, wears a tradition Indian headdress and looks over her shoulder at the viewer as she stands in front of the magnificent Hindu temple the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Bridgewater, New Jersey, which dominates the background. In her statement Nidhi writes "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. Our place of worship, the Sri Venkateswara Temple is an important part of my spiritual life…" To emphasize the importance of the Temple, Beirne photographs Nidhi in the foreground in sharp focus, while she softens the outlines of the massive structure of the Temple, adding a spiritual quality to the photograph.
Tension is vividly portrayed in the photograph of a young Iranian Sohale Mehrmanesh from Elmwood Park, who is depicted seated on a sofa looking at the viewer with dark piercing eyes, his large hands featured prominently clasped tensely on his lap. Sohale reflects the worries of many young refugees from Iran. "After the revolution, my parents left Iran because they could not practice their Baha'i faith. I'm sixteen years old and my parents are still really protective…. I have an 11:30 pm curfew, and I can't stay overnight at anyone's house. Now after the terrible events at the World Trade Center, I'm worried that we are going to have a war. I'm also afraid that all Arab people will be suspected of terrorism."
A portrait of a 15 year old African refugee Diana Ingabire now living in Chicago shows her seated head held high with pride and dignity. In her statement, she describes her experiences after fleeing the Congo to go live in Zambia. After a long bus trip and many days walking to Zambia, she and her family found no refugee camps there and were forced to live on the street. Yet, Diana's story is one of hope. "My brothers and I were not allowed to go to school because we were foreigners. I played with friends all day until we came to America. Now I can go to school. This country is good."
In another image, Marcial Ramos from Union City stands proudly near his painting of midieval knights preparing for battle. "If I still lived in Cuba, I would probably be in jail, because I feel that it is most important for an artist to have freedom of expression," Marcial explained in his statement. "In Cuba, the government encourages artists to only paint pro-revolutionary subjects or portraits of Fidel Castro. Any subject that questions the government could be dangerous for the artist, family, and even friends. Here I can paint anything I choose…."
Beirne a project-oriented photographer has lived all her life in New Jersey, growing up in Bloomfield. She received an MAF in photography from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, and studied with Robert Mapplethorpe and Lisette Model. "Mapplethorpe taught me how to use light effectively," Beirne said. She has completed three other projects including: Children of Belfast, Northern Ireland; The Community Food Bank of Morris County; and most recently Serving Home and Community: Women of Southern Appalachia, which was also a traveling exhibition organized by SITES. She taught for 5 years as an adjunct professor of photography at County College of Morris in Randolph and has authored 4 children's books: "Siobhan's Journey;" "Riders Up!," "Children of the Ecuadorian Highlands;" and "Pianist's Debut." Her camera of choice is a medium format camera, so that she can make large 16 by 20 prints. Beirne develops her negatives and prints the images herself. "Each step is an important part of the creative process," Beirne said.
Her photographs have a wonderful quality of light, and she often frames her images to create exciting compositions. The play of dark and light in her photographs is magnificent and used to highlight the special personality of each individual. "The teenagers in this exhibition have the determination and strength always associated with those who are courageous enough to leave their homelands and all that is familiar to them. They struggle to "be themselves" while seeking tolerance and understanding from their adopted homeland. I am confident that with time and encouragement these your people will realize their American Dream," Beirne wrote.