carol isaak

‘Our Diversity Is Our Strength’

In a divided nation, a photography exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery celebrates the many faces and stories of immigrant Americans

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 massesSend 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.”