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Building Bridges: Photo exhibit profiles immigrants and asylum seekers

  • Violet Uwera, from Rwanda. Photo by Gigi Kaeser

  • Victorien Ndounou, from Gabon. Photo by Mark Chester

  • Pema Y. Greer, from Bhutan. Photo by Mark Chester

  • Ahmed Goutay, left, from Morocco, and Guslim  Sadvakasova, from Kazakhstan. Photo by Mark Chester

  • Hampshire College student Eduardo Samaniego, from Mexico. Photo by Gigi Kaeser

  • Anna Aniela Litra, from Poland. Photo by Mark Chester

  • Mary Kakesa, third from left, and her children, from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Gigi Kaeser



Staff writer
Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Last fall, with several photo and text exhibits about diversity behind them, Peggy Gillespie and Gigi Kaeser were considering what they might work on next. They’d done some initial work on a project that would profile people who had come to the United States seeking asylum, but Gillespie says that effort still seemed to be some years off from completion.

Then Donald Trump became president.

That was all the impetus Gillespie and Kaeser needed to get cracking on their newest exhibit, “Building Bridges: Portraits of Immigrant and Refugees,” which has just opened at Greenfield Community College and is also touring other locations in the country.

These portraits of 30 newcomers to the United States — all live in Massachusetts — along with first-person text in which they tell their stories, come at a time when the Trump administration has fanned political division with anti-immigrant rhetoric and controversial policies, including a travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries.

“I felt a fire had been lit under me,” Gillespie said during a recent interview at her Belchertown home. “Both Gigi and I were feeling like we had to do something to resist [anti-immigrant sentiment], and we wanted to get this exhibit out into the world.”

And Kaeser, who lives in West Chesterfield, said that even though many Americans “have their own immigrant stories” as part of their family history, “some people have been here so long that they’ve forgotten those stories … they think the country belongs to them.”

Gillespie, a journalist and a certified social worker, and Kaeser, a photographer and early childhood educator, are the founders of Family Diversity Projects (FDP), a nonprofit organization that in the past 20 years has produced several traveling photo-text exhibits, books and curriculum designed to fight prejudice against sexual orientation, gender, race and other personal characteristics.

The two friends first came to attention in the Valley over 20 years ago when “Love Makes a Family,” a photo-text exhibit on LGBT families, was displayed in the area, sparking a lawsuit from some Amherst residents who did not want the exhibit displayed in the town’s elementary schools. Gillespie and Kaeser went on to produce exhibits on LGBT clergy, people with disabilities, and transgender people, among others.

Gillespie said she and Kaeser typically spend around six months putting together their exhibits, which have been displayed in locales all across the country: public and private K-12 schools, colleges and universities, houses of worship, libraries, museums, community centers, workplaces. Kaeser takes most of the portraits for the projects and Gillespie writes the text, based on her interviews with the subjects.

But the urgency they felt to put out the new exhibit meant they needed to do “Building Bridges” a little differently.

“We’re a nation of immigrants except for Native Americans,” Gillespie said. “That’s a message that needs to be out there, now more than ever.”

Joining forces

 For “Building Bridges,” Gillespie and Kaeser have worked with Mark Chester, a Cape Cod documentary photographer who has developed his own photo/book project, “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape,” with portraits of some 400 people in the commonwealth who come from 185 different nations.

Gillespie explains that Chester had contacted her after learning of some of FDP’s projects, wondering if she might be able to help him get a photo exhibit staged in this area. Some further discussion led them instead to collaborate on “Building Bridges.” 

Most of the photos in “Building Bridges” are by Chester, who shoots in black and white. Gillespie, primarily by email, interviewed Chester’s subjects for the accompanying text for the photos.

Whereas Chester’s photos are all of immigrants who have since become citizens in the U.S., most of Kaeser’s portraits, in color, introduce people who have fled their countries of origin to seek asylum in the U.S. Their reason? As gays and lesbians, they faced violence, even possible death, at home for their sexuality.

The people seeking asylum are connected to a church- and community-based program in Worcester that’s designed to help those who are looking to find sanctuary in the U.S.

The exhibit photos themselves are casual, straight-on portraits, sometimes of the subjects themselves and sometimes with family members, in homes, workplaces and other settings.

But the accompanying stories, in which the people explain why they’ve come to the U.S., can be darker — and in those accounts, Gillespie notes, one can find the reason many people have traditionally looked to the U.S. as a place to make a better life for themselves.

“Immigrants don’t come here to take people’s jobs,” she said. “Many want to live in a less dangerous place … where everyone has an opportunity to live safely.”

Facing down violence

 In a booklet that’s part of the exhibit, Gillespie offers some expanded interviews that make for harrowing reading. Judith “Jude” Samuels, from Jamaica, explains that because she is a lesbian, she was repeatedly beaten in her home country, as well as raped; the home she shared with her twin sister was burned to the ground.

Violet Uwera, who came to the U.S. from Rwanda — her family had to flee their original home during the 1994 genocide in that country — says her father threw her out of their house, and even tried to poison her, when she told him several years ago that she was a lesbian.

Kaeser says she’d never heard more horrific stories from the people she has photographed over the years. It took her and Gillespie a few years to win the trust of the people in the Worcester asylum program, as some feared being part of a public exhibit, even in the U.S., could put them in danger.

“Eventually they came to believe that this could be helpful to other people who have gone through similar experiences,” Kaeser said.

Some of the settled immigrants photographed by Chester tell more traditional stories of coming here, like Pema Y. Greer, who grew up in Bhutan and began studying English as a child; she had a longtime desire to come to the U.S., she says, and now that she has been here for a decade, “I stand tall and grounded, and I’m very proud and privileged to be an American.”

Not that some of these more newly-minted citizens don’t see problems in their adopted country. Victorien Ndounou, who came to the U.S. from Gabon for college and stayed, says in a country as diverse as America, there is also some “racism, discrimination, and abuse … if someone of mixed race like President Barack Obama can be subjected to those experiences, I can’t escape them.” 

But Ndounou, who now works in the telecom industry, also takes great pride in the U.S. constitution, calling it a “sacred” document that can, in the end, be relied on to right many wrongs — which makes the current message from the White House about immigration very disturbing to him.

“Stoking fear about immigrants and refugees is not going to do the United States any good,” he says. “It’s going to wake up the worst instincts in people and turn neighbors against neighbors … We should be building bridges, not walls!”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Building Bridges” can be seen through Nov. 9 in Community Room 208 at Greenfield Community College. 

For more information about the exhibit and Family Diversity Projects, visit familydiv.org.