Two Participating Venues in this year’s FotoFocus Biennial feature exhibitions that explore the lives of refugees and immigrants, as seen through their own eyes.
Prairie, Inc. in Northside will exhibit photographs made by clients of the local Refugee Resettlement Program in New American Stories, and the University of Cincinnati’s Clermont College Park National Bank Art Gallery will host an exhibition titled New World: Refugees and Immigrants Photograph the Experience of a New Life in America.
For much of the past five years, photographer and Executive Director of Prairie, Inc. David Rosenthal has largely used his gallery as an office space and fabrication area related to ongoing programming with 30 different local high schools.
Building upon that art educational practice, Rosenthal connected with Catholic Charities of Southwest Ohio a few years ago, and when presented with FotoFocus’s theme Open Archive, the artist says he began to consider how to include the folks he worked with.
“I thought about the idea of the family-photo archive, and the fact that so many of these families spent many years in camps all around the world before they finally got here,” he says.
Many of the immigrants Rosenthal worked with were Bhutanese refugees who frequently were forced to leave their homes in the middle of the night with only the things that they could carry long distances. Consequently, the photographer admits he was curious about what these documentations might mean to them, and if they’d ever played a role in their lives.
The goal then became putting the means of archiving their new lives into the hands of these immigrants, and as Rosenthal puts it, “assisting in seeing what happens.” He included autobiographical information about each photographer because he wanted visitors to know about the circumstances of the immigrants’ flight from their homeland and what they went through to get here.
“There’s a backstory and those are different for every place,” says Rosenthal. “It was really beautiful to see how a lot of the participants looked at photography as a way to show their culture and identity.”
New World, curated by photographer Kent Krugh at UC Clermont’s Park National Bank Art Gallery, also put cameras into the hands of recent immigrants—aided greatly by the work of Sheryl Rajbhandari, Executive Director of Heartfelt Tidbits, a refugee and immigrant serving organization. Rajbhandari, Krugh says, “has been critical for this endeavor.”
Krugh explains that since January he has worked closely with seven immigrants and refugees on a monthly basis, who—like Rosenthal’s project—were provided with cameras and instructed in their use.
Krugh will identify 10 images from each artist to frame and exhibit for the show, but the artist explains, thoughtfully, that the exhibition is more than just a collection of photographs in a gallery.
“It was conceived as an opportunity for me to learn about the lives of refugees and immigrants by working directly with them. I couldn’t conceive of the challenges that would confront us, nor of the friendships I would make. It was, from the beginning, a leap of faith into unknown territory. But the personal rewards and relationships have been priceless.”