A ballerina. An artist with an alter ego. Jewish refugees on a train. Kids playing at home while their mom works. A psychiatrist forced out of his homeland. Black Lives Matter marchers. A vineyard worker, a winemaker, a chef. Just people, with remarkable stories, told in a remarkable series of photographs in the collection Our Diversity Is Our Strength at Portland’s Blue Sky Gallery.
The images, by a broad selection of photographers, are of immigrants and the children of immigrants – part of the panoply of people who make up the large and diverse American multiculture. They are people who have brought the world with them, enriching and expanding their new homeland with everything from food to art to ideas. And they are here at a tense and crucial time.
“Never has it felt more important to share photographs and stories of people who have come to this country for the opportunity to make a better life for themselves and their families and who have given so much to our country and communities,” the show’s curators, project director Paige Stoyer and Jim Lommasson, wrote in their exhibition statement.
Our Diversity Is Our Strength arrives at a time of deep national division, with fear of the Other fanning the flames. One of Joseph R. Biden, Jr.’s first acts as the 46th president of the United States was to declare a moratorium on construction of The Wall, his predecessor’s high-profile and intensely controversial barrier across the Mexican border that’s been pegged at a cost of roughly $15 billion.
The greater cost has been both symbolic and substantive. Donald Trump’s demand for a border barrier played on fears in much of white America of a rising demographic tide of color. It emphatically rejected the nation’s aspiration to embrace newcomers, as voiced in The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus’s 1883 poem etched on the base of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses … Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” The push for a wall was a calculated statement that outsiders were not welcome in the United States – that they were interlopers, and would be forcibly blocked from entering, especially if they were not white. Soon children were being separated from their parents and detained in cages, and violence against people of color, by police and others, spiked.
Biden’s moratorium suggests a rational shift from the extreme racially based isolationism that gave the Trump movement so much juice. Yet we are also only three weeks removed from a riot in the nation’s capital that felt very much like a failed attempt to overthrow the elected government. “With the increasing hate speech we are experiencing, often against immigrants, and which dehumanizes entire groups of people, we are grateful to share these stories as an antidote,” Stoyer and Lommasson continue. “When we allow ourselves to stop and really see each other, to be willing to hear someone’s story, to see our common humanity, we understand we are not so different. It opens the door to mutual understanding and empathy.”
The photographs in Our Diversity Is Our Strength stop and see. They come in a variety of styles, from carefully posed to verité captures of moments in time. They come in rich colors, and in black & white. Their framing, balance, and technical quality are excellent. And each helps tell the story of a life, offering viewers an encounter, however briefly, with a human being they had not known. In Stoyer and Lommasson’s words: “We must find a way to first, always see the humanity in each other. It is the only way we will start to heal the deep wounds and divisions in this country.”
The entire portfolio of this year’s Our Diversity Is Our Strength project includes 37 photographs. The exhibition is on view through February on the community wall of Blue Sky’s library, and additional images will be available to see in the gallery’s Community Viewing Drawers through the end of 2021. (Blue Sky is open by appointment; you can schedule a visit here.) Below you’ll find a healthy cross-section of images from the show, each accompanied by a brief story about it from the photographer.
“Heading for America, 1952. Leaving a displaced persons’ camp in Hanover, Germany – Esther, father Max and brother Ben depart from the train station. In the early 1950s the family left Poland illegally, traveling over-land to Israel with a paid guide. Traumatized by the fighting in Israel, Max and family headed back to Germany, again traveling illegally. In Germany, we lived in a displaced persons’ camp until the U.S. immigration barrier for Jewish refugees was lifted in 1952. Heading for America from Germany, final destination Portland, Oregon.”
“My name is Claudio Eshun aka ‘Don Claude.’ I was born in Accra, Ghana, in 1996, lived in Vicenza, Italy until I was 9 before moving to Worcester, MA, with my mom and two younger siblings. The opportunity to travel to 3 continents, live in an under-resourced community, endure traumatic experiences as an African immigrant with a single mother and two younger siblings have all influenced the birth of my righteous creative practice through a persona known as ‘Don Claude.’ In my practice, performance for the camera links components of my life in America with memories of my African roots and my journey as an immigrant. Don Claude is an intellectual African man, raised in an American society with a goal to embrace the Afrocentric culture, share hope, confidence, and individuality through an array of styles and his creativity. Don Claude likes being the underdog due to his low-income upbringing as an immigrant. I live in the community my work represents because I fear the risk that my higher education might disconnect me from the inner-city community I was raised in. Navigating both spaces grounds me as a spectator and performer, combining my double consciousness as an African and a Black man in America.”
“My mom and I met Shawn in late June when we were at a bluff on the banks of the Missouri River in Kansas, a prime location for sunset photos. He explained that he got the tattoo after being shot in the back and surviving it. The bullet is still lodged in his back and he is so grateful to be alive that the tattoo commemorates his gratitude. We spoke at length and as we left he said, ‘We all need to learn to be kind to each other. Men and women need to be good to each other.’ My mom responded with, ‘Can I hear an Amen?'”
SEYED SINA SAJADPOUR
“Immigrants throughout history have been silenced for being different. Have been killed because of others having a skewed understanding of them. We as immigrants try to use our voices to educate but have a hard time communicating facts and reasons.”
“Rediet is originally from Ethiopia. She moved to the United States with her family when she was very young. Her first language is Amharic. The text on the image says, ‘I am an immigrant.'”
“Having immigrant parents with few resources you watch your friends go to summer camp or long camping trips during summer break. Meanwhile you’re at home because mom is working and can’t afford camps. In order to kill boredom, I started to get into photography. This picture of my niece and nephew represents the small advantage of owning a camera and the small advantage of living in better circumstances than the generations before me.”
“During a Black Lives Matter march commemorating King’s birthday, a young boy carries a sign of unity. ‘We the People’. Black Americans cannot end racism alone. While diversity is our strength, commonality is our salvation.”
“Baher Butti – Imagine living through years of war, your life under constant threat, then losing your job and your pension, and finally leaving everything behind to start a life in a completely different culture. Not only has Dr. Baher Butti gone through all of that, but from the moment he left Iraq for the U.S. in 2007, he has devoted himself to serving the needs of other refugees. Baher approaches with the quick step of someone with a lot on his plate, but sits with total presence, speaking with gentle conviction. A psychiatrist, Baher once ran the largest mental health program in Iraq at a hospital in Baghdad. A pioneer in the field there, he instituted never-before-seen rehabilitative programs and established the Paradise for Psycho-social Humanitarian Care in 2003.”
“Her story begins in Somalia, a fusion of beauty and unrest. Loving parents moved her to England, where she was educated and graduated with the best. Her cultures are now intertwined, and her outlook is fresh. Without hiding her background, she shows us her color. It’s what unites her old with her new. I find strength in her ability to connect with people of all lands and tongue.”
“A vineyard worker takes a break during grape harvest in Dundee, Oregon. Almost 100 percent of the farm working population in Oregon’s wine industry is from Mexico.”
“Bertony Faustin, winemaker and owner of Abbey Creek Winery in North Plains, is Oregon’s first Black winemaker.”
“Martin Gomez was born and raised in the Yucatan, and as the eldest of five children, felt a strong desire to provide more for his family. He was 20 years old when he came to the U.S. in 2001, to Portland, Oregon because he had an uncle who lived there. Martin struggled because he spoke no English and was uncomfortable with his lack of cultural knowledge.
“Martin began studying English at Portland Community College and got a job as a dishwasher, working his way up to prep cook. In 2003 he was given the opportunity to become a line cook at the newly opened Mingo restaurant.
“He spent many long days and nights learning how to become a chef, often on his own without pay. In 2005 he advanced to Sous Chef and began to feel a sense of purpose and vision for a push toward realizing his dream. Then in 2008, Martin was named the Head Chef at Mingo restaurant in Beaverton and says he gets a lot of joy from sharing his food with people and from traveling and continuing to learn about different cultures and cuisines.”
“Natalie Reyes, ballerina. ‘I don’t know anyone in a big company who’s Latina. There are very few. It’s my ambition to be the first and keep working hard for all those brown ballerinas. That’s why I keep going.'”
“Pidyon haBen is an ancient Jewish ceremony. This male child, Jonah Wald, is the first natural issue of his mother’s womb. When he was thirty days old he was redeemed through the transfer of silver coins from his father, Daniel, to a descendant of the priests of old.”