In a penetrating exploration of America’s evolving attitudes toward refugees, documentary artist James A. Bowey has been traveling the United States meeting refugees, listening to their stories, and photographing their portraits. The photographs are taken on location in a setting of the portrait subject’s everyday life. Along with the portrait, Bowey interviews each person and their first-person story accompanies their photograph. The individuals in this exhibition share poignant stories of violence and loss, as well as perseverance and hope; and their images and experiences produce a compelling human portrait of refugees in America.
I was beaten and tortured by six people,
I was bleeding from my ear, my eyes, and mouth.
Around 11 p.m. they took off my clothes
and threw me in the river.
I was floating unconscious all night.
There was one girl who witnessed what happened.
My body was found about seven in the morning.
The whole village thought I was dead,
I was 12 years old.
All I remember is the shouting,
and I see my uncle killed —
And my mother screaming.
They said they would kill me but I kept working.
I was a journalist in Mogadishu and the Al Shabaab terrorist group
controlled the city and began assassinating journalists.
I would sleep in my office for days and weeks without seeing
my wife and children.
One day they killed the station director and I received a message,
that I was next.
I left with nothing but the clothes I was wearing.
Life in Mogadishu was chaos.
The groups were at war.
Everybody had guns.
There was random fighting and killing,
Our neighbors and cousins were killed.
Every day we were living in fear
that something would happen to us.
I couldn’t stay.
I was 12 years old.
I wore my best dress, like we were taking a trip.
But fleeing means you let go of everything you can’t carry.
First it was the photographs and clothes,
then the food, and water.
You get to the point where you can only carry yourself,
and death would be better.
Somehow you continue.
Before the war I had a good life,
and a good job.
One day I received a letter at the door with a bullet in it.
‘Get out Sunni from this holy place,
you have 72 hours to leave the country.’
I fled with my family,
and left behind everything I owned.
My dad got shot,
and we knew we had to leave.
We live for three months in the jungle without food.
We eat leaves and bamboo.
I get very skinny.
I didn’t think I would make it.
Death became unimportant.
My brother worked as interpreter for American military.
One day men shot and killed him
in front of our home.
In front of my family.
Three days later they put a note under our door,
I would be next.
I like to be in a country
where no one asks you what you pray.
Life in the camp was hard.
It was hard to find money.
We collect bottles and pick fruit to sell.
We just eat rice and pepper.
One day they came to our home,
and beat and killed my father.
We ran away.
We traveled for two weeks by foot without money or food.
We picked fruit and sold it on the street.
I was 17 years old.
My father was a political activist,
and one of the most wanted men in Burma.
My mom left me with my grandmother when I was three months old.
I had to keep my identity a secret because they go after the children.
It was misery for me.
When I got older we learned that they were looking for me,
so I went into hiding and left the country.
I sometimes wonder who I am,
and why I didn’t get to have parents like other children.
It was hard to leave the refugee camp.
The new school was so big.
I was scared.
I didn’t have any friends.
I listen to the kids, but I don’t understand.
But I was so happy,
I did not have to walk to school.
I didn’t have a ball in the camp.
We play with rubber band and marble.
We play in mud.
Now I play soccer,
I can be on a team.
When I was one year old my parents carried me on their backs.
They took care of everything in the camps.
All my life they have been taking care of me.
My dream is to finish my education and get a job as a social worker,
so I can take care of them.
I want them to get some rest.
After my father was jailed and beaten,
we fled to Thailand.
We lived in a tent along the border for 25 years.
We moved whenever the Burmese military came across,
or the Thai police raided our camps.
A refugee is someone
who cannot depend on anyone.
home: Sanmoua village, Laos
We found out they execute soldiers in village who helped Americans.
We walk for days through the jungle.
We hide and we make bamboo raft to float across
Mekong River to Thailand.
Everything is hard for me,
My English is not good,
I don’t have much friends.
But I can get my children a better life.
For 21 years,
I lived with my family in a one room tent in Djibouti.
Very bad conditions.
No running water. Robberies. Wild animals.
My dream was to get a high school education,
and I had to sneak into Ethiopia each year to go to school.
It was easy to feel hopeless.
But even if you can’t see hope
you don’t have to be hopeless.
When I was growing up and going to school
my father would say goodbye everyday
not knowing if I would make it back home.
At my graduation ceremony from medical school
a terrorist blew himself up.
The force knocked me down.
A schoolmate lost his eyes.
I wrapped my shirt around his head,
and held him.
As a documentary artist I’m interested in the state of the empathetic imagination in contemporary life. The unique human capacity to imagine the experiences and emotions of persons separate from ourselves defines us as people and a culture. It establishes the frame by which we determine our social responsibility as individualistic or interconnected. Within this context, my work seeks to explore subjects that challenge our empathetic imagination and understanding of others.
This is particularly germane to our consideration of refugees in America. The number of globally displaced people has risen dramatically in recent years, and is expected to continue to rise in response to ongoing conflicts, poverty, and climate change. However, fears of terrorism and economic dislocation have created social and political pressure to exclude refugees from the United States. These challenges force us to consider the basic human rights of all, and our global responsibilities to others.
One of the most difficult things a person ever does is to truly see another. But if we really look at someone and consider their story, we discover the shared humanity that links us all. That is the hope for this work: to find ourselves in each other, one photograph at a time.
The process used to produce this work is to spend time with each refugee participant in the course of their everyday life to listen to their story and photograph their portrait. Each portrait is presented with an excerpt of the subject’s first-person story that has been edited and translated from a transcript of the conversation. This approach aims to give voice to the voiceless, and make each refugee a co-author of the work.
The series is presented in a distributed storytelling approach using a variety of media channels. Each channel presents a different aspect of the story to build an integrated and sustained engagement with the experience of refugees in our communities.
The project consists of the following elements:
- Social Media Dialogue. The foundation of the project is a social media forum. The goal is to initiate a community dialogue about refugees and their stories. The forum hosts work-in-progress, shared stories and information about refugees and supporting agencies in the hope of building a collaborative community of interest.
- Multimedia Web Application. The project is also published as an ongoing series in this multimedia web application. It includes the photographs, first-person narratives, and supplemental information in an interactive interface.
- Public Art Installations. Images and stories are distributed as posters, cards, or other public art media. Each of these items include a means to access and engage the larger project. The purpose is to create unexpected encounters and invite new thinking about refugees.
- Traveling Photography Exhibition. The entire series is a traveling photography exhibition. The exhibition photographs are be presented as approximately 18x12 archival inkjet prints on fine art paper, with 3-inch white mats in 1-inch white gallery frames.
- Community Discussions. Along with the installations and exhibitions, the project includes a methodology for communities to come together and discuss concerns, lessons, and stories of refugees. Installation and exhibition venues are encouraged to use the project as site for community dialogue.
- Online Courses. The images and stories are combined with specific topic content in online courses focused on global citizenship, leadership and art for undergraduate and continuing education students.
- Book. The photographs and text have been produced as a fine art book. The book form creates an intimate experience with the refugee photographs and stories.
James A. Bowey is a documentary photographer who explores issues of human rights and social connection. He has spent his career covering a wide range of global and national stories from the war in Bosnia to Hurricane Katrina. His work has been featured by The New York Times, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, as well as in numerous exhibitions. Bowey is also an educator and was on the faculty at Winona State University from 2008 to 2015 where he won the national WOW award for innovation in higher education.
For more information, visit jamesbowey.com