The New York Sun
ARTS & LETTERS
Young & Yearning To Breathe Free
By WILLIAM MEYERS
May 3, 2007
One thing I am grateful for on almost a daily basis is that I am no longer a teenager. It is hard enough when you are a teenager that your body has a mind of its own, that social ineptitude regularly produces dramatic humiliations, and that the future seems a rumor hardly credible, but it is an even more difficult period of transition if you are also moving from one culture to another. "Becoming American: Teenagers and Immigration," an exhibition of 59 black-andwhite photographs by Barbara Beirne currently on display at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, introduces us to a particularly appealing group of teenagers confronting those challenges.
Ms. Beirne is a documentary photographer who has attracted attention with her projects on the women of Appalachia, a food bank in New Jersey, and the effects of conflict on the children of Belfast, Northern Ireland. (One of her early exhibits, in 1994, was at the Midtown Y Photography Gallery; the present show at the New York Public Library celebrates the gallery and was the subject of last week's review.) An encounter with some teenage Albanian refugees from Kosovo prompted her to seek out other teenage immigrants. She went first to the Grand Street Settlement, a nonprofit organization that has been serving New York City immigrants since 1916, and worked out a modus operandi with the teenagers she met there. They were given the maximum autonomy to choose the clothes they would wear and the environment in which they would be photographed. They were also asked to write a paragraph putting their experience of immigration into words.
The pictures on display in the former dormitory rooms at Ellis Island were taken by Ms. Beirne between 2000 and 2006, as she went around America meeting refugees and immigrants. She visited high schools, after-school programs, places of worship, and resettlement centers looking for subjects. In some cases, she chose children born here of immigrant parents. The chain of six dormitory rooms that house the exhibition are connected one to the other; they are 24 feet by 24 feet, with white hexagonal floor tiles, white rectangular wall tiles, and very high ceilings. These empty, antiseptic, somewhat foreboding rooms have not housed actual immigrants for several decades, but are symbolically appropriate for this show.
Yelena Venglovskaya, 15, is an attractive young woman with bold features. She wears a coat with a hood over her head and a scarf around her neck. There is no one behind her on the Coney Island boardwalk, so it is winter. The concession stands are closed, seagulls skim along to the right, and the parachute jump stands dramatically useless against a bank of clouds. By placing her to the right of center and leaving plenty of room overhead, Ms. Beirne emphasizes that Yelena is a figure in a landscape, someone somewhere. Much of her face is hidden by shadows and the hood, but we clearly see the set of her mouth and the arch of her right eyebrow, and that is enough to give us a strong sense of her character. "I miss Ukraine and nature," Yelena wrote. "I live here four months. No one in my family speaks English, so I work hard to learn."
"After the revolution, my parents left Iran because they could not practice their Baha'i faith," Sohale Mehrmanesh, 16, wrote. He sits on a sofa covered with material of some folk design. A good-looking boy, his head is lowered slightly, but his eyes are fixed on the camera. He wears an open white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, faded jeans, and an American crew cut. Ms. Beirne positioned her camera low enough and close enough to give prominence to Sohale's hands, which are clasped with the fingers tightly interlocked inside so we only see his knuckles. The tension expressed by the hands is mirrored in his face. "I'm … afraid that all Arab people will be suspect of terrorism."
Christina Mdayishimiye, 17, and Pierre Gaimba, 18, escaped from the killings in Burundi and from refugee camps that were almost as dangerous. They sit on a mown lawn somewhere, she in a longsleeved print dress, he in a shirt and tie and a suit that is slightly too big. The camera looks down at them from above. Neither looks at the lens, or at the other, and although both are solemn, it is impossible to tell if their thoughts are on the past or on the future. Their brief paragraphs describe horrors American-born teens need never be concerned with. He wrote: "People died like something I can't explain." She wrote: "We are refugees now praying we will be safe."
"Becoming American" was organized by the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service and will move to other venues. At a time when immigration is a matter of hot political dispute, there is nothing in the show to provoke anxiety. There are no pictures of teenage immigrants who are in trouble with the law, are failing in school, are on welfare, or are here illegally. There are also none from the major Western European countries that supplied large numbers of earlier immigrants: England, France, Germany, or Italy. But the ones Ms. Beirne has selected to photograph are an impressive bunch, determined and serious in dealing with both their cultural handicaps and their ordinary teenage sorrows.
Welcome and good luck.
Until June 3 (212-363-3205 or ellisisland.org for directions).